Tuesday, March 31, 2015

At the Water's Edge

Title:  At the Water's Edge
Author:  Sara Gruen
Publication Information:  Spiegel & Grau. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0385523238 / 978-0385523233

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The headstone was modest and hewn of black granite, granite being one of the few things never in short supply in Glenurquhart, even during the present difficulty."

Favorite Quote:  "...what I had learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually hiding in plain sight."

At the Water's Edge encompasses adventure, domestic relationships, romance, and coming of age into a story set intriguingly on the shores of Loch Ness in 1945. That is the "water's edge." Loch Ness is a fresh water loch in the Scottish highlands. It is, of course, best known for its legendary Loch Ness monster "Nessie."

The war has brought soldiers, land mines, losses, and heroes. The legend of the Loch Ness monster brings Maddie, Ellis, and Hank - an inseparable trio of friends. Maddie and Ellis are married, but the trio is always together. In the United States, they belong to a class of the privileged wealthy. Ellis and Hank are both not in the war, excused for medical reasons. A fight between Ellis and his father leaves them out of the family home and perhaps disinherited.  Ellis thinks to photograph the Loch Ness monster and redeem himself in his father's eyes for his is this mission in which his father failed and was publicly humiliated years ago.

Their arrival in the Scottish Highlands is noticeable - and not in a good way. The locals do not take kindly to the three of them, especially to Ellis and Hank. Soon, however, Maddie begins to establish relationships among the locals while Ellis seems to be in a downward spiral as his quest for the monster remains unfulfilled. Friendship and romance bloom for Maddie while Ellis turns more and more to drugs and alcohol. Hank sometimes plays the role of friend to only one and sometimes mediator. Maddie finds support in war hero Angus, who runs the inn at which the newcomers are staying, and in Meg and Anne, who both work at the inn. Ellis finds himself more and more isolated as his behavior antagonizes those closest to him and the entire town. The story continues in this spiral into a dramatic conclusion.

This book is ultimately more a coming of age story and a romance than historical fiction. Although World War II is the undercurrent to this book, this book is not about the war. In fact, other than a few details, the book could have been set in any time period. So, if you are expecting historical fiction, you may be disappointed.

I enjoyed the magic and mystery of the setting and the contradictions in time, place, and character that abound in this book. Opulence of one nation and despair of another. Wealth flaunted and wealth used as a means to do good. Love and exploitation. War hero and coward. Gullible youth and a maturity born of experience. Mythological monsters and monsters who lurk beneath the surface people show to the world. The author makes no overt comparisons, subtly weaving them into the entire story. The inferences, however, are clear and dramatic.

Most clear of all is Maddie's evolution through the book. She starts as a young, gullible socialite going from party to party. She and Ellis make a spectacle of themselves in their hometown of Philadelphia. Through this journey, Maddie discovers more about who she is about what she thought she knew about monsters - real and legendary. The Scottish highlanders have no tolerance for socialites and debutantes, and Maddie discovers that perhaps, that is not who she is. She discovers a depth, an understanding, and a maturity in her life and in her new relationships - a whole new life at the water's edge, if you will.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Last Bookaneer

Title:  The Last Bookaneer
Author:  Matthew Pearl
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1594204926 / 978-1594204920

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Back in my salad days laboring for the New York Central Hudson River Railroad Company, I would always keep an eye out to see if he would enter our car before the hour of departure."

Favorite Quote:  "It's the real power of a book - not what is on the page, but what happens when a reader takes the pages in, makes it part of himself. That is the definition of literature."

Just based on the title alone, I had to read this book. Bookaneers. Literary pirates! The description intrigued me even more - Copyright laws. Rivals. Epic last heist. Race to the South Pacific. Robert Louis Stevenson. Then came the book itself.

According to the author's website, the idea for the characters came from teaching a seminar at Harvard Law School on "The Literary Vision of Copyright." In the 1700s, copyright laws were very lax if they existed at all, especially across international boundaries. Thus, manuscripts could be published without the author's content. The author got the fame, but the publishers got the money. This created an industry of book thieves - the bookaneers - who rivaled each other in trying to get manuscripts by whatever means necessary, especially from well known authors.

Bookaneering, however, was a dying profession, for on the horizon were new, stricter copyright laws. In this book, two legends of this fictitious industry - Belial and Pen Davenport - are after the same prize. Robert Louis Stevenson, who now lives on the island of Samoa, is working on a new manuscript. Both Belial and Pen Davenport view it as the final opportunity to be remembered as the greatest bookaneer. Pen Davenport brings along the bookseller Fergins as his assistant (think Sherlock Holmes and Watson). The Last Bookaneer combines the history of copyright laws, the history of Stevenson's life in Samoa with the fictional story of these thieves to create an immensely multi-layered story.

First, the book introduces Fergins as a seemingly humble, simple bookseller, with his bookstall and his book cart. He peddles books on trains, where he meets Clover, a poor waiter who loves reading but cannot afford the books. The two strike up what you might call a friendship. Chance meetings lead Clover further into Fergins life; circumstances lead Fergins to tell Clover the story of the bookaneers and their last epic heist. This first section of the book surrounds you in books and those who share the love of books. Definitely a read for book lovers.

Then comes the beginning of the story of the bookaneers. This part of the book introduces a lot of characters as the chase for the manuscript starts and travels to Samoa. We meet the bookaneers Belial and Davenport, and, in flashbacks, the story introduces another bookaneer known as Kitten. Kitten's story becomes a story within a story. In addition, an entire cast of characters surrounds Robert Louis Stevenson; his story and the history and political climate of Samoa becomes another story within this story. This section seems to move very slow; it does not move the plot forward much but rather further defines the characters and set up the environment of Samoa.

Then, the action hits, seemingly from all sides. Murder. Accidents. The rivals. The heist. Even Samoan politics. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the plot twists and turns like a roller coaster ride, bringing the reader back full circle to the role of books in our lives and our role as stewards of the knowledge contained in books. The pace of the book goes from zero to sixty and brings the reader along for a tumultuous ride with an even more shocking end.

"Books inspire a man to embrace the world or flee it. They start wars and end them. They make the men and women who write and publish them vast fortunes, and nearly as quickly can drive them into madness and despair." This book encompasses all these elements of inspiration, quests, wealth, and madness set around a memorable main character - the Last Bookaneer.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Juice Lady's Anti-Inflammation Diet

Title:  The Juice Lady's Anti-Inflammation Diet:  28 Days to Restore Your Body and Feel Great
Author:  Cherie Calbom
Publication Information:  Siloam. 2015. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1629980021 / 978-1629980027

Book Source:  I received this book from the author and publicist free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "There are many factors in our modern lifestyle that pull us away from the health we want, the health we need to complete our purpose."

Favorite Quote:  "You have the power to change and heal your body. It starts with what you choose to eat each day."

The Juice Lady is celebrity nutritionist and prolific writer Cherie Calbom. She has written about 25 books that have been published around the world. This is her latest contribution to the food and nutrition genre.

The premise of the book is that research shows that many health conditions are the result of chronic inflammation in a person's body. Remove the inflammation, and you mitigate or even eliminate the health condition. The idea of "diet" enters in that inflammation can be the result of food choices. Choose the appropriate foods and, correspondingly, eliminate the inappropriate foods, and you mitigate or even eliminate the inflammation.

Fundamentally, better eating leads to better health. This is a tenet we all know, and we all should abide by. This book has a specific prescription for what better eating looks like. It contains a 28 day (4 week) plan with menus and recipes. Chef Abby Fammartino has created the recipes for the book. Please note that although Cherie Calbom is the "Juice Lady," this book goes beyond juicing and smoothies. This book is an entire eating plan; it incorporates juices and smoothies, but also many other foods that form the basis of an anti-inflammatory diet.

I don't have the scientific knowledge to comment on the science behind the book. Several of the suggestions - avoid processed sugar, avoid processed grains, eat whole foods, avoid genetically engineered products - are the same as in a lot of other research and just common sense. Beyond that, the book presents a discussion of what are considered inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods.  It does suggest eliminate some entire categories of food such as wheat and dairy. However, for virtually every "don't," the book presents a "do" - as in a prescription for what to eat.

The presentation of the book is well organized and easy to use. The first chapter works on identifying what inflammation is, its pros and cons, and some of the health conditions that can result from chronic inflammation. Chapter 2 focuses on the causes - food, health, and environmental - that contribute to inflammation. Chapter 3 introduces the foods with anti-inflammatory properties. Chapter 4 is the 28 day plan, laid out week by week with shopping lists, menus, and recipes.

The section outlining the 28 day plan is very well organized. The shopping list is organized by categories as a checklist such that it can be copied/printed and used as the actual shopping list. The individual recipes include a clear ingredient list, number of services, and cooking directions. Many also include color pictures, which is always appetizing in a cookbook. The recipes do not include nutrition information; however, that may be because the focus of this book is more on the foods in the recipe not their caloric or nutrient content. Still, that would be a great addition. The recipes also separate the ingredients into what comes from that week's shopping list and what comes from the pantry. This section is not as useful since the complete shopping list and recommendations for a well stocked pantry already appear elsewhere in the book. The ingredients themselves seem mostly to be readily available items (at least where I am.).

The table of contents also includes a list of recipes organized in different ways - type of food like smoothies, salads, etc; meals such as breakfast and dinner. I really appreciate having a recipe index as  it allows easy navigation to a specific one and provides the list for inspiration.

The book does include marketing for the services the Juice Lady offers and some of the products she endorses - more so than just an "About the Author" section. However, these are included in a separate, stand alone section and are not intrusive into the rest of the content.

Overall, the book presents a cohesive plan of eating in a well organized, easy to use format. Does it work? I guess you have to try it out for yourself.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Title:  Wild:  From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Author:  Cheryl Strayed
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2012. 313 pages.
ISBN:  0307592731 / 978-0307592736

Book Source:  I read this book based on its publicity. Since then, my book club has also chosen to read it.

Opening Sentence:  "The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California."

Favorite Quote:  "I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn't help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn't spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering, some of my emotional suffer would fade away."

Cheryl Strayed was born in 1968. Her parents divorced when she was fairly young. After that point, her mother was the anchor of her world. She spent her teen years in rural Minnesota on a property with 40 acres of land, but, for a while, no electricity or running water. Her mother remained the anchor of her world. Cheryl moved away for college but remained very close with her mother.

Unfortunately, in 1991, Cheryl mother died suddenly, leaving her reeling from the loss. At the same time, her marriage fell apart, partly due to her own decisions. In fact, she picked her name "Strayed" upon her divorce. "Nothing fit until one day when the strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord:  To wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress."

In response to the chaos in her life, Cheryl Strayed found a focal point - to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and to do it alone. The Pacific Crest Trail Association's trail "frequently asked questions" state, "On the PCT, your safety is your own responsibility. While there are permits, no officials are actively monitoring or keeping track of your location. You should provide your itinerary to family or friends and check in with them frequently." A young woman with little to no hiking experience decides to hike the trail alone. She leaves an itinerary, and she checks in. She prepares for her trek, but in many ways, she starts on this venture completely unprepared.

Distraught with grief for her mother's death and at a crossroads in her life, Cheryl Strayed does exactly this. Through this book, written almost a decade later, she brings us along on this journey with her. The journey is a physical one and very much a spiritual one. I may not agree with many of her choices (about venturing on this path alone, about money, about men, about relationships, about her mother's remains...), but I find myself stepping through every step of the journey with her.

On her website, Cheryl Strayed has this to say about this book - "Wild is not in the 'I did any interesting thing so I wrote a book about it' genre. It's a literary memoir. I didn't write Wild because I took a hike; I wrote Wild because I am a writer." In addition, "like any memoir, WILD is based primarily on memory crafted with the intention of creating a piece of literature..."

In other words, this book is a literary work and should be assessed as such. The decisions Cheryl Strayed makes in her life are not open to discussion. Her life, her decisions. What is the discussion here is the story she tells. As a story, the book is riveting. I find myself highlighting passages that speak to me. Sometimes, I see the vistas she sees. Sometimes, I want to stop her from repeating her mistakes. Sometimes, I feel the strength of her grief and the power of solace she sought from this trek. Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn't a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in the world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadn't truly understood the world's vastness - hadn't even understood how vast a mile could be - until each mile was beheld at walking speed. And yet there was also its opposite, the strange intimacy I'd come to have with the trail..." Her words make me feel as if I am along with her throughout the journey.

I don't agree with some of her choices, but I do truly appreciate her courage in taking the journey and her decision to share it with the world.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Perfume Collector

Title:  The Perfume Collector
Author:  Kathleen Tessaro
Publication Information:  Harper. 2013. 446 pages.
ISBN:  0062257838 / 978-0062257833

Book Source:  I read this book based on the cover and description.

Opening Sentence:  "Eva D'Orsey sat at the kitchen table, listening to the ticking clock, a copy of Le Figaro in front of her."

Favorite Quote:  "To me, chance isn't isn't random. The universe is bound by unseen threads. We have only to untangle them a little to see a pattern unfold."

I love perfume, and I love historical fiction. This book combines a little bit of both in a story that spans two generations. Grace Munro is living her life in England, with its rich social life and her sometimes overbearing husband. She receives news that a mysterious benefactor in France has left her an inheritance. The inheritance comes from someone Grace does not ever remember meeting or even hearing of. They seemingly have no connection at all. She leaves London behind and takes herself to Paris to investigate.

The journey to Paris becomes a journey to the past. She learns who her benefactor is but comes no closer to learning why Eva D'Orsey left her the legacy. Grace digs deeper, trying to discover why.

The book switches perspectives and takes the reader to the past. We meet Eva D'Orsey and begin to learn her story. She was a hotel chamber maid. Circumstances take her far beyond her beginnings. The book gradually reveals Eva's life, but the mystery continues. What is connection between the two?

The book circles through the past and present, telling both Eva and Grace's story until the stories eventually meet and the connection between the two is revealed. Eva's story is that of a strong young woman, who suffers setbacks and betrayals but never stops striving. She becomes the muse for one of Paris's most influential perfumers. Though unrecognized, she becomes a skilled perfumer herself. Eva's story is also one of sacrifice and what a person will do for someone they love. Finally, Eva's story is the lush story of Paris in the 1920s and the sensual appeal of perfumes.

Grace's story is of a wealthy, insulated childhood and of living life according to expectations. Her trip to Paris is a journey of self and of discovery of who she is beyond those expectations. The beautiful Paris setting again highlight beauty and luxury.

"Perfume should tell a story - the story of who you are, who you might be, perhaps even of who you fear becoming ... all of these things are possible ... it conveys feelings and states of being that have no name, no language. Its very ambiguity makes it truer than words, it can't be manipulated or misunderstood." Eva's story is of who she was, what she becomes and the fears she survives. Grace's story becomes the one of possibility as the legacy she receives is so much more than the inheritance she thought.

The dots of this story are not hard to connect; it's easily guessed where the story ends. However, the descriptions in the book - about Paris, about World War II, about the perfume industry - are rich and captivating. More than the characters or the plot, it is these descriptions that bring the book to life, giving it richness and depth. As the book itself says, "Life is after all, a sensual experience. Our senses have the power to truly transport us but also to ground us. Make us human." The book successfully sets out to appeal to the senses and tell a story through the images.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do

Title:  The Secret:  What Great Leaders Know and Do
Author:  Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller
Publication Information:  Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2014. 152 pages.
ISBN:  1626561982 / 978-1626561984

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "How can leadership be this hard?"

Favorite Quote:  "I believe we demonstrate our priorities with the way we allocate our resources - and that includes our time."

The Secret that great leaders know and do is that "Great leaders SERVE." What does "serve" mean? That explanation is the focus of this book.

The concept of servant leadership is centuries old. References to the concepts can be found in the Tao Te Ching writings of Lao Tzu, many religious writings, and in the words of leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. The term servant leadership is attributed to Robert Greenleaf, when he wrote an essay titled "The Servant as Leader."

Servant leadership gives recognition two indivisible facets of business leadership - the growth and success of the business and the growth and success of its people. Only by developing and nurturing their people can businesses achieve long lasting success. Servant leadership is about putting in place the relationships that allow individuals to leverage their strengths and to collectively further the goals of the business. These relationship take the form of mentoring, shared power for decisions, and team roles that build on individual goals and strengths.

This book, originally written a decade ago in 1994, presents the idea of servant leadership in an easy and quick to read package. This new edition includes a self-assessment that readers can use as well as a list of resources available through the authors' work in this area.

In the book, Debbie Brewster is the case study. She has had some success in her career and is now a team leader. However, as a team leader, she is floundering. Her team has the worst performance in the company along a variety of metrics. Customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction is sorely lacking, and Debbie is unsure how to remedy the situation. She wants to, but her methods seem to exacerbate the situation rather than improve it.

She applies to join a mentoring program and is shocked to learn that her mentor is the leader of the company. She does not understand how he can take the time from "leading" to be a mentor and why he would want to.

Over the course of several meetings, Jeff leads her through the SERVE concept, helping her leverage her own strengths to discover her way to effective leadership. In between the meetings, Debbie attempts to apply the paradigm to her own team with astonishing results. Their current results are "worst;" their collective, shared goal becomes from "worst to best."

The ideas of the book are not new, but the book effectively packages them into a clear vision. It can be read in one sitting and easily understood. The implementation of the ideas, of course, is up to the individual, but the theory itself is simple and cohesive. It is to see or envision the future, to engage others in a shared vision, to reinvent personally and organizationally, to value results and relationships, and, finally, to embody the values - to "walk the walk" if you will.

While written for a business audience, the approach can certainly be applied in other parts of your life as well. All our relationships can benefit from the idea of shared beliefs, shared goals, and opportunities for individual strengths to shine.

As the book suggests, ask yourself, "Am I a self-serving leader of a serving leader?" Read the book and the periodically revisit it as a reminder or recheck. I know I will. This book will find a place on my bookshelf and be reread.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sisters of Shiloh

Title:  Sisters of Shiloh
Author:  Kathy & Becky Hepinstall
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2015. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0544400003 / 978-0544400009

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Libby waited for her dead husband in the woods, her breath making clouds in the cold night air."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm not a coward. I'm not afraid of dying. I just think we have to take what's ours, because no one is going to give it to us. And if that makes me yellow, fine. I'll be yellow as a pound cake, yellow as lemonade. Yellow as a field of daisies. Let the cows graze on me, damn it. I don't care."

Josephine and Libby are the sisters of Shiloh, except that they are from Winchester not Shiloh, and at the moment they are not Josephine and Libby. They are Joseph and Thomas, two new volunteers in the Confederate Army.

Josephine is the older of the two. Libby is the prettier of the two, or at least that's what Josephine believes all her life. The sisters share the closest of bonds during their childhood until Arden and his family arrived in town. Josephine is thirteen and Libby, a year younger. Arden and Libby immediately form a bond, a bond that excludes Josephine.

Seven years later in 1862, Arden and Libby are married, and Josephine is alone. Arden is a soldier in the Confederate Army, and Libby has returned to her childhood home. The Civil War is at their doorstep. The battle of Antietam leaves Arden dead, and Libby distraught.

Seeking revenge, Libby disguises herself as a young man and joins Stonewall's Brigade, vowing to kill one Yankee for each year of Arden's short life. Josephine follows, vowing to keep Libby safe. In this quest, Josephine and Libby emerge in disguise as Joseph and Thomas (just as Constance emerges as Ash in Neverhome).

The basis of the book is the bond between the sisters. Yet, that is the least developed aspect of the book. The book does not really develop them as characters; nor does it provide enough of a back story. Josephine and Libby are inseparable until Arden comes around and essentially takes Libby away. Libby allows it to happen. Why? Josephine dislikes Arden, and Arden is unkind towards Josephine. Why?  Libby is described as fragile, Why? Josephine is so fiercely protective of Libby. Why? I would love to know why? Is it simply that a man comes between two sisters (or really a boy comes between two girls)? Without the answer to the "why," it is difficult to engage with the two sisters and difficult to feel their story.

The book moves quickly through the back story, not really explaining why, and gets to the story of the war. The bulk of book is the about horror of war - the survival through atrocious living conditions, the lack of food and supplies, the bloody battles, and the even more horrific aftermath of the battles. The descriptions in the book are lurid and gruesome. They make you cringe and are so vivid that you see the battle as if you stand on that battlefield.

However, elements of love and strong bonds also recur throughout the book. It exists in the bond between Josephine and Libby. It exists in Libby's love for Arden. It exists in the bond between brothers on the battlefield. It is shown in the gestures of caring between soldiers. It is present in the love stories of some of the supporting characters. It is present as one sister falls in love with another soldier. This theme brings beauty and love into this time of battles and death, creating an interesting counterpoint to the horrors of war.

Although the basis of the book is the relationship between two sisters, this is a book about war, in all of its vivid, grisly detail.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?

Title:  This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?: From Eggnog to Beef Jerky, the Surprising Secrets of What's Inside Everyday Products
Author:  Patrick Di Justo
Publication Information:  Three Rivers Press. 2015. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0804139881 / 978-0804139885

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books.

Opening Sentence:  "It started with a simple question."

Favorite Quote:  "... all the ... products in this book ... are a part of our world, and even if you don't use them, you are better off knowing what is in them rather than not knowing."

This book is based on a series of articles written by Patrick Di Justo for Wired magazine. The magazine feature was title "What's Inside," and it ran in the magazine from 2006 - 2013. For a time, the feature was also included on the PBS series Wired Science.

Each article in the book is a stand alone unit. Each addresses a food or other household item. It lists the ingredients in the product. For each ingredient, it describes its origin, its impact on the products, and some of its other uses. Some sections include additional information from experts such as chefs. Each article then includes a "backstory" which explain the research that went into that particular story- the initial research, the databases, the reactions from companies, and other sources. Some include sidebars include trivia and explain industry terms that we often find on labels and claims but whose industry definition we may not completely understand.

Let's take an example. The first article deals with A-1 steak sauce. The ingredients described range from tomatoes to xanthan gum. Excerpts from an interview with Chef Alton Brown provides additional information on each ingredient. The backstory includes description of research to find an ad for the sauce in a 1956 issue of Life magazine. The ad and the clarity of the online image allows comparison between ingredients then and ingredients now. The sidebar explains that the commonly used term "artificial flavorings" is defined simply an anything used to add flavor to food that "does not meet the definition of the a natural flavoring."

The articles are compiled into two sections - "This is What Your Put in Your Mouth" and "This is What You Don't Put in Your Mouth." The first section is not strictly food items; it includes a few oddballs like dog food, a flu shot, and heroin (yes, heroin). The second section ranges from deodorants and shampoo to gasoline and golf balls. Each section is organized simply alphabetically.

To talk about what this book is, first look at what the book is not. In his introduction, the author is clear, "If you're looking for shocking stories of the gigantic corporate conspiracy to poison America through its processed foods, you're reading the wrong book ... I always approached each product with nothing but curiosity and a desire to have that curiosity satisfied." So, the book does not pass judgement on ingredients or suggest any dietary or product changes you might make in your life. Some of the descriptions may lead you to that point anyways, but that is not the main thrust of the book.

The description of the book sounds rather dry; however, the way in which it is written had me laughing out loud. Some examples:

  • corn maltodextrin described as "glucose that is going through a period of identity confusion."
  • ammonia "kills nearly every type of microorganism; not even Chuck Norris has that kind of kill ratio."
  • taurine (an acid) "now made synthetically ... is the magical elixir said to bring out the kite-surfing extremophile in any web-surfing nerd."

Don't let the tongue in cheek humor fool you though. The book is serious science as well. It explores and explains the biology and the chemistry of the products and the ingredients. It also contains much information about industry terminology and regulation. For example, did you know that US federal regulations define a serving size (as found on food labels) as the "an amount of food customarily consumed per eating occasion by persons 4 years of age or older?" Did you know that US federal regulations do not require expiration dates on food; those are included by decision of the manufacturer? These facts so surprise me that I actually had to look them up to make sure!

This book has a whole lot of science and a whole lot of humor. It is organized such that it can be read piece meal and is full of interesting trivia. If you are looking for a judgement against the industry or a mandate for change, look elsewhere. If you have an interest in the science of products or you just want to know what is in the products you use, this is definitely a book for you.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Rosie Project

Title:  The Rosie Project
Author:  Graeme Simsion
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2013. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1476729085 / 978-1476729084

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem."

Favorite Quote:  "If your really love someone ... you have to be prepared to accept them as they are."

Don Tillman decides he needs a wife. So, in his usual fashion, he approaches the "wife problem" logically, analytically, and objectively. He identifies the characteristics he seeks in a mate and creates a questionnaire to determine if a potential mate has those characteristics. His intention is to offer the questionnaire to women in an effort to quickly identify compatibility or incompatibility. To him, this is logical and makes sense.

He does realize that not everyone thinks the way he does. In fact, this is something he has known since grade school. As he puts it, he is wired differently. Social interaction has always been difficult for him. Routines and black-and-white rules help him organize his life. He does not view himself as less capable or challenged; he just knows what works for him. He embodies many of the characteristics of someone with Aspergers; yet, he does not see that in himself even though he is professor of genetics and lectures on the topic. The book points out, "Humans often fail to see what is close to them and obvious to others."

Along comes Rosie. She is a PhD student and works in a bar to support her education. She is not aware of Don's project to find a wife. Rosie does not meet many of the criteria on Don's list, but there's something about Rosie... Don doesn't understand love, but there's something about Rosie.... She seems entirely incompatible, but there's something about Rosie.... You see where this is going? "Love is a powerful feeling for another person, often defying logic."

Don and Rosie are both endearing characters, and their story is sweet and at times laugh out loud funny. The book touches on that quest of finding "the one," what we go through, and how what we think we want turns out to be completely different from what brings us joy. The book also highlights that "different" does not mean "less;" it just means "different."

The questions I have about the book is book relate to the implication that Don Tillman has Aspergers. The book never specifically states that, but it is clearly implied. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders defines Aspergers as "an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of a distinct group of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties, and restrictive, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior." Is this book an accurate depiction? Are the changes Don undergoes as he develops a relationship with Rosie realistic? If you deal with Aspergers or love someone who deals with Aspergers, is this book the sweet love story I see or something different?

Leaving the serious questions aside, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Book Club Discussion:  This book led to one of the more lively and more in depth discussions our book club has had recently. I suppose because at the end of it all, this book is about relationships, acceptance, and love. That is something we all responded to. The discussion started with the book but led to much deeper conversation. On the flip side, we also had a lot of fun taking the "Wife Project" quiz: Are you compatible with Don?

So, are you a Don or a Rosie?

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Title:  Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Author:  Erik Larson
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0307408868 / 978-0307408860

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On the night of May 6, 1915, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounger, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings."

Favorite Quote:  "At 2:33 pm, the wireless station at the Old Head of Kindle sent the Admiralty a two-word message:  'Lusitania sunk.' ... A great ship, present one moment, gone the next, leaving what appeared at a distance to be an empty blue sea."

May 7, 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. Many of us think we know the story; at least, we know what the history books say. A hundred years later, the story of the Lusitania is still tragic and rife with grief.

The brief version of the history is as follows. The Lusitania was a passenger liner, owned and operated by the British Cunard line. The ship went into to commission in 1906. On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania sailed from New York, bound for Liverpool. It carried over 1,200 passenger and about 700 crew members.

The Lusitania route sailed through waters declared by Germany to be war zones. In fact, German ads of this declaration appeared as warnings in newspapers right next to the ads for the Lusitania sailing. The ship sailed anyways, assuming safety since it sailed as a commercial, passenger vessel - a designation that provided protection from attack.

On May 7, 2015, the Lusitania was close to its final destination of Liverpool. A German U-boat attacked, launching a single torpedo. The torpedo hit the starboard side and exploded. A very short eighteen minutes later, the Lusitania sank. Almost 1,200 of the people on board lost their lives.

Erik Larson's book brings this history to life - from many different perspectives and at a truly human level. The beginning of the book sets the stage - the escalation of war in Europe, the desire of the British to draw the United States into the war, the view of the war from the American side, and the use of the submarine attacks by the Germans. At the same time, Mr. Larson develops the human story - Captain Turner of the Lusitania; Walter Schwieger, the captain of U-boat; members of the British Admiralty; Room 40, a secret aspect of British intelligence; Woodrow Wilson's occupation with his personal life; and the lives of some of the passengers on board the Lusitania.

The details in the book are meticulously researched. The details of the ship can be found in historical records. The historical records of the captains of both the Lusitania and the U-boat can also be found. The passengers whose stories are highlighted are those who, according to Mr. Larson, "left vivid detailed accounts ... and in addition left a broad and deep documentary trail." One survivor, a book collector and seller, Charles Lauriat even wrote a book about his experience of survival. "The key lies in detail. There are no shortcuts--you have to do the necessary digging to find the bits and pieces that will ignite the reader's imagination." (quotes from Mr. Larson's interview with Shelf Awareness)

What is perhaps most amazing about the book is the sense of foreboding and suspense it manages to create. I know the history. I know how it ends, but I find myself on the edge of my seat, contemplating what is coming next. That is the skill of Mr. Larson's writing and perhaps also his goal. The author's note in fact says, "My goal was to try to marshal the many nodes of real-life suspense, and, yes, romance, that marked the Lusitania episode, in a manner that would allow readers to experience it as did the people who lived through it at the time..." The book succeeds brilliantly at this goal.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Shadows Over Paradise

Title:  Shadows Over Paradise
(also previously released as Ghostwritten)
Author:  Isabel Wolff
Publication Information:  Bantam. 2015. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0345533186 / 978-0345533180

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Holiday makers speckle the beach, reclining behind brightly striped windbreaks, hands held to eyes against the late-afternoon sun as they gaze at the glittering sea."

Favorite Quote:  "Siblings share the same childhood memories ... They even share the same genes. So to lost a brother or sister is to lose a part of oneself. People say that it's like losing a limb, but it's much more than that. It's as though a piece has been gouged out of your heart."

Shadows over Paradise is the stories of two women. The current day story is that of Jenni Clark. She is a ghostwriter, making a career out of helping people write her memoirs. She is in a serious long term relationship, but the relationship seems to be floundering. She has strong friendships, but she also has secrets she has never told her friends.

Klara is an elderly farm owner, still working the family farm with one of her sons. Family members know that Klara has a story to tell and secrets she has never shared. They finally convince her to tell her story, and Jenni is hired as the writer. Klara's story goes back to World War II.

Jenni comes to the farm to interview Klara as a starting point for the memoirs. This journey brings Jenni back to a place from her past - a place of loss and sorrow. Gradually, through the conversations, the stories of both women emerge. Klara's story is one of terrible suffering, of terrible choices, and ultimately of survival. Jenni's story is one of a terrible accident, which she believes occurred because of her choices. Both center around the loss of a sibling.

Jenni's story is the shorter of the two. She loses her brother in a terrible accident at a young age. She spends her life living with her guilt and hiding it.

Klara's story is developed more in depth and is the more compelling of the two. In the context of Klara's story, the book presents an aspect of World War II history. The Dutch came to the "East Indies" in the 1800s. They settled on plantations producing crops such as coffee, tea, and rubber to be supplied to the Netherlands. The Netherlands entered into war against Japan in 1941. The Japanese in turn attacked and took over the Dutch East Indies. Initially, the plantation workers were kept on to keep the crops producing. Slowly, however, as the threat grew larger, thousands of Dutch civilians in the East Indies were put in camps; some were even sent to Japan as forced labors.

Klara and her brother are children at the time of the war, growing up in an idyllic tropical setting. Such was the fate of their family. Initially, her father, a plantation manager, is asked to keep the plantation running. Then, he along with other Dutch men, are taken. Ultimately, she, her brother, and her mother are imprisoned in a camp. What comes after was suffering and heartbreaking choices - the loss of her brother and the start of Klara's secrets.

Individually, the stories of both women are tragic and heartbreaking. The experiences and events of their childhoods forever alter both their lives. What is less engaging is the comparison between the two stories. The book draws the comparison too clearly and too directly. Both women lose a younger brother. Both feel responsible and, in consequence, guilty. Both mothers say things to these girls that can never be forgotten. Both women never tell anyone their secret. The big difference is that Klara, through time and experience, has found a way to love, life, and joy despite her loss. Jenni has yet to discover that path.

It appears that the book should be about Jenni; it begins and ends with Jenni. However, Klara's story is so much stronger that Jenni's is overshadowed in comparison. The book connects too many of the dots of comparison, leaving Klara's as the more memorable story.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Station Eleven

Title:  Station Eleven
Author:  Emily St. John Mandel
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2014. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385353308 / 978-0385353304

Book Source:  I read the book based on its publicity.

Opening Sentence:  "The King stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored."

Favorite Quote:  "If you are the light, if your enemies are darkness, then there's nothing that you cannot justify. There's nothing you can't survive, because there's nothing that you will not do."

This book starts with a Shakespeare play on stage in Toronto in a world as we know it and ends up with Shakespeare plays in makeshift theaters in a post-apocalyptic world I hope we never know.

On this certain night in Toronto, actor Arthur Leander dies on stage while performing as King Lear. On this same night, a virus arrives in North America via an airline passenger. Within days, the world is decimated. A pandemic ravages most of the population of the Earth and causes civilization as we know it to disappear.

Fifteen to Twenty years later, bands of survivors create new lives in a world with no infrastructure. Some settle in one place. Others move from place to place, eking out a living. The Traveling Symphony brings the joy of music and theater to the small settlements.

To some extent, the book describes itself in the statement of one of the characters. "A life, remembered, is a series of photographs and disconnected short films." The story weaves through past and present in nine sections which are further divided into a total of fifty five chapters. Given the length of the book, this makes each chapter relatively short. The short chapters from several different perspectives and time periods create essentially a series of vignettes. Not all the characters are directly connected, but they all create a far-reaching web with Arthur Leander at the center.

Through all the characters, certain themes arise and carry through the book. "Survival is insufficient" is a line originally from Star Trek, but in this book, it speaks to the artists both before and after the apocalypse. Before, you have the actors, the musician, and the comic book artists. After, you have the entire Traveling Symphony. Art, joy and beauty are necessities of life beyond just survival.

"Hell is the absence of the people you long for." Memory and longing is the other theme that appears consistently throughout. The memories and longings may be for a loved one who is gone or simply far away; the longings are also for our own past. They are there in Arthur's longing for his son. They are there in Miranda's refrain of "I regret nothing." They are there in the Museum of Civilization, which gathers relics of the world before the pandemic. They are there in the tattoos that mark events in a life.

I am not quite sure why I liked the book as much as I did. The characters do not really develop and the basic plot is relatively simple, but the way in which the story is told captures me. Maybe, it's the circular way in which everything comes back to the link with Arthur Leander. Maybe, it's the way the central themes of memories and of life beyond just survival keep repeating. Maybe it's the hope embodied in the existence of the Traveling Symphony - that regardless of the circumstances, joy and beauty can be found. I don't know, but I do know that I had a hard time putting the book down and was sad when it ended.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

Title:  The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
Author:  Rachel Joyce
Publication Information:  Random House. 2014. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0812996674 / 978-0812996678

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This may come to you as some surprise."

Favorite Quote:  "If you picture other people like you, you will no longer be alone. And when you share, you see that your own sorrow is not so big or special. You are only another person feeling sad, and soon it will pass and you will be another person, feeling happy. It takes the sting out of life, I find, when you realize you are not alone."

In 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was the debut novel by Rachel Joyce. It tells the story of Harold Fry, who walks across the country in response to a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy. This book is the other side of that story; it is Queenie's story as she waits for Harold to arrive. Having read both, I cannot think of one without the other.

As she waits, Queenie writes Harold another letter, one that slowly describes her life and the secrets she has kept. "My secrets have been inside me for twenty years, and I must let them go before it is too late." Having read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought I knew how this story ends, but it surprises me nevertheless.

My least favorite parts of this book are the characterization of Queenie herself and the relationship with David. Queenie's story unfortunately is one of regret - both for things said and done and for things left unsaid and undone. The beginning of the book describes her actions, like how she gets her job at the brewery, as those of a courageous, confident young woman. Throughout the remainder of the book, she builds her life around a love that will not be. She spends her life hiding and running away, pining for an undeclared and unrequited love. Her garden becomes her solace through life, but even that is shrouded in regret. "My garden was a tribute to a man I could not have. It was my atonement for a terrible mistake." How sad and how frustrating. All through the book, I find myself wishing that she would find the courage she displayed at the beginning of the book.

The other aspect of the book I do not enjoy is the description the relationship with David. Without giving away the plot, I will say the whole situation seems contrived and just a bit odd. Is it a transference of a feeling for one person to another? Is it a way to hold closer something that is not to be? Is it to share in a part of someone's life even though that relationship does not exist for the other person? The entire relationship seems to have the elements of an unpleasant fixation.

My favorite parts of the book are the characters and descriptions of the hospice where Queenie lives and Rachel Joyce's writing itself. The hospice is place full of laughter, life, and even joy. The nuns who run it portray a sensitivity and caring that should be prevalent in health care today. The residents, with the exception of Queenie, seize life - whether it be letters, contests, puzzles, protein shakes, and even a wedding. Harold Fry's walk brings such joy to the hospice. While Queenie is in a place of regret and waiting, the rest of the hospice residents and caretakers get caught up in his adventure. Sadness and death of course is an undercurrent in a hospice, but overall, the residents embrace life.

Having now read both books, I do love Rachel Joyce's writing. While I do not care for the story in this book as much, I still find myself highlighting passages that speak to me.  Harold Fry's story seems to center on how extraordinary and deep a seemingly ordinary life can be. Queenie's story is about getting caught up in the sorrows of life to the point that you miss the joys. It is about reminding yourself to find joy and beauty even when surrounded by sadness. "... once in a while you have to stop in your tracks and admire the view, a small cloud and a tree outside your window. you have to see what you did not see before."

Interestingly, neither this book nor Harold Fry's story answer the question of why? Why does Queenie Hennessy fall so completely and absolutely in love and why does that love become the focal point of her entire life? We read of her love through her own words, but never why. Why does Harold Fry embark on a quest to see someone he once knew for a short time? The book itself provides a direction. "... perhaps it is wiser once in a while to accept that we don't understand, and stop there. To explain is sometimes to diminish. And what does it matter if I believe one thing and you believe another? We share the same end."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Cut Me Free

Title:  Cut Me Free
Author:  J. R. Johansson
Publication Information:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0374300232 / 978-0374300234

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The city embraces me."

Favorite Quote:  "Maybe we're all hiding more scars under the surface than it seems."

Piper has escaped. She has left behind her abuse filled childhood. Her brother was not so lucky. However, Piper has a chance to start over and wants to do so with a new identity, severing all ties to the past. She hires Cameron, a young man who specializes in this work. Cameron soon becomes more than the hired help. Along the way, she also meets young Sanda, who she fears faces the same threats that Piper herself did. Piper, now known as Charlotte, takes it upon herself to rescue and help Sanda.

They seem to be on a path to freedom, when the notes start to appear. Charlotte's past seems to be catching up to her. Someone seems to know her secrets and threatens her new existence. Is it her abusive parents? Is it Sanda's abuser? Is it someone else and will Charlotte ever find safety?

The story is a fast-paced thriller that keeps you guessing. I did not predict some of the connections that emerge at the end. Some were probably not necessary, but the element of surprise was fun.

The elements of romance exist too. Cameron falls instantly in love with Charlotte and overall is a bit too good to be true. What adds interest to that element of the story is that it tests Charlotte's ability to trust and trustworthy people have been completely lacking in her life. I also appreciate the fact that for the young adult audience, the romance is relatively clean.

Logically, the main character, Piper aka Charlotte, does not ring true. She is a teen runaway. On the one hand are the descriptions of her childhood. She spent the bulk of her life locked up in an attic enduring unspeakable abuse. She has had no schooling other than what her grandmother was able to teach her in a very short time. She has had not exposure to the world at all - no news, no friends, no outside contact, nothing.

At the beginning of the book, she has been on the streets for a while. She has managed to survive and find her way from her parent's home to Philadelphia. Despite her background, she comes across as a mature, street smart young woman. She knows how to find someone to create a new identity for her. She deals rationally and smartly with the man she hires. She can handle the practicalities of life, from registering for school to installing a lock. She seems to have insight into those around her. For example, the statement, "I want to make him tremble with her fear the way I do. To feel the pain and terror he so enjoys causing. But I won't let myself give in to those urges - that is why separates me from him." seems too mature and too insightful.

It doesn't ring true. However, it does not matter. Even understanding the logic gap, the story and Piper draw you in and capture your heart. You want to believe that she has had the courage to learn what she needs and to survive into a "normal" life. So, while you may not believe the characterization, you end up believing in the character, feeling her fears and cheering her successes.

A sympathetic main character, a fast-paced story, and a guessing game all make for an entertaining read.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.