Monday, November 30, 2015

Slow Fires: Mastering New Ways to Braise, Roast, and Grill

Title:  Slow Fires:  Mastering New Ways to Braise, Roast, and Grill
Author:  Justin Smillie, Kitty Greenwald
Publication Information:  Clarkson Potter. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0804186235 / 978-0804186230

Book Source:  I received this book through Blogging for Books program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When I'm standing over a cutting board with a stockpot sputtering behind me, a roast in the oven, shallots mellowing in vinegar off to the side, I'm in my element."

Favorite Quote:  "In short, deciding when to devote from the above 'rules' is as important as understanding them."

Slow Fires is a beautiful book. Just the name alone conjures up images of warmth and meals lovingly prepared. The mouth-watering full-color images on the cover and within the book create a cornucopia of food and ingredients to be relished. The handful of personal anecdotes and photographs create a welcome.

This is a technique based cookbook focusing on three techniques:

  • Braising:  "a dish that centers on to basic parts:  a 'meat' (or fish or vegetable) and a cooking liquid" and "how the interactions of ingredients, heat, moisture, and time result in surprisingly diverse, delicious results."
  • Roasting:  "cooking both in the oven and on the stovetop" and "the key to mastering them is understanding how to manipulate temperature and the moisture inherent in your food."
  • Grilling:  "the rusticity of the technique - how effortlessly it adds flavor and lends a smoky, sweet char" and "the primal thrill I get from taming a fire."

The broad base of these technique descriptions indicates the liberal interpretation the chef creates of these techniques. Each section reviews the "rules" of the technique and then presents recipes and discussions on how to push the boundaries.

The recipes included are presented as fifty-two (one per week) meals. The individual recipes stand alone but are balanced into meals to create a complete experience in cooking and in eating.

The recipes in the book are not everyday meals; these meals require planning. The introduction clearly states that many of the meals presented "take more time than average." Each meal and its recipes come with an accompanying calendar. Some can be accomplished in a few hours while some requires planning several days ahead of when the meal will be served. Much of the time involved is not active cooking time; for example, brining a meat does not take long, but you must allow for the meat to sit in the brine for some time. The book asserts that the time is well worth the investment for "though I realize time is a luxury, building big flavor often depends on it." Being an avid cook, I whole-heartedly agree. Taking my time to prepare a meal  and to coax flavor out of ingredients is a luxury I try to make time for in my life.

The book explains the basic techniques for braising, roasting, and grilling each in a few pages. The recipes then build on an understanding of that base. Many of the recipes call for the cook to judge meat by its feel - "dry and tacky" and "tender but bouncy." The recipes use cooking terms such as fond, soffrito, panade, butterflied, and emulsified. Many of the recipes also use ingredients not often found in daily home meals - sardines, cipollini onions, rabbit, garlic confit, black kale, and tuna belly to name a few. As a result, Slow Fires is not a cookbook for the novice or the casual cook. Because of the ingredients the book incorporates, many of the recipes are not ones I will regularly cook.

However, the techniques taught will definitely bring a new dimension to my own dishes. That is how I often use my cookbooks - not for an exact recipe but for inspiration, new combinations of ingredients, and new ways of cooking something. For that, this beautiful cookbook definitely fits the bill.

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

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto

Title:  The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto
Author:  Mitch Albom
Publication Information:  HarperCollins. 2015. 512 pages.
ISBN:  0062294415 / 978-0062294418

Book Source:  I read this book based on the author's other work.

Opening Sentence:  "I have come to claim my prize."

Favorite Quote:  "Music is in the connection of human souls, speaking a language that needs no words. Everyone joins a band in this life. And what you play always affects someone. Sometimes, it affects the world."

Frankie Presto, a legendary guitarist who disappeared from the public eye, dies. People from all walks of life and from all over the world flock to his funeral. Who truly was Frankie Presto? Does anyone truly know? This book is his story. Sounds like a biography, right? In a way, it is, albeit an entirely fictional one.

This book sneaks up on me and makes me care. Admittedly, at the beginning, I am not sure I am going to like it. It begins at an ending - a funeral. So, of course, it's a reflection back. It's been done before, and I already know how it ends. I am not sure I am going to like it.

On page 2 comes a declaration. "I am Music." The book becomes a first person narrative with Music as the narrator. Now, I am really not sure this is the book for me. It sounds allegorical as Mitch Albom's books often are. It sounds like life lessons are coming as is often the case in his books. Can that narrator work? Will the allegory be too obvious? Will the book be preachy? I am not sure.

Then comes a section that reads like an interview. An actual historical person from the music industry is reflecting back on his experiences with Frankie Presto. The book becomes fiction that is a biography. Again, I question whether or not this is the book for me. I have my musical favorites, but am not knowledgeable enough to know the all the people or all the musical terms used in the book. Will the book be difficult to relate to?

Then, the book travels from time period to time period. Frankie's funeral to his birth and back again. From the Spanish Civil War to Woodstock. From Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. From Detroit to Los Angeles. From past to present and back again. Short chapters showing glimpses into different parts of Frankie's life. As a reader, I think. Can I keep the time periods straight? Do I need to? Am I going to be able to follow the story?

Then, most surprising of all comes the fact that I find myself completely lost in the story and deeply involved with Frankie's life. My questions about the book all recede. I care what happened to Frankie in the past and what happens to him next. I know how it ends - he dies. I know the dramatic circumstances of his birth as revealed at the very beginning. I find myself reading the book straight through in one sitting to learn everything in between. Most importantly, I care.

My favorite writing technique of the book is the repeating refrain of "Everyone joins a band in this life." Each facet of Frankie's life is bookended by this statement. Accompanying this statement are simple statements of his life. Bands end. Bands breakup. Some are favorites. Some are wrong. Some get back together. Some bring joy. Some bring sadness. These statements, stark in their simplicity, leave a lasting impression and create the timeline of Frankie Presto's life.

I don't particularly care for one aspect of the story introduced close to the end nor do I see it coming in the rest of the book. However, by that point, it no longer matters. I am so vested in Frankie's story, that it just works into the story. Of course, by the end, the life lesson is also there as in most Mitch Albom books. However, Frankie and his story are clearly the stars of this memorable book.

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Portable Veblen

Title:  The Portable Veblen
Author:  Elizabeth Mckenzie
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2016. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1594206856 / 978-1594206856

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

Opening Sentence:  "Huddled together on the last block of Tasso Street, in a California town known as Palo Alto, was a pair of humble bungalows, each one aplot in lilies.

Favorite Quote:  "Positive spin makes the world go around."

Paul and Veblen are getting married. At least, they are engaged to be married. Will they marry? Are they a good match?

Paul is a scientist working on a device to help those with traumatic brain injuries. His work and ambition lead him to a job with high powered Department of Defense contractors. Veblen is more of a free spirit, living in her ramshackle house and translating texts for the Norwegian Diaspora Project.

Paul is the son of hippie parents. Veblen's mother is a hypochondriac suffering a myriad of illnesses; her stepfather revolves around her mother; and her father is institutionalized due to complications of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Paul is older brother to Justin, who is an adult with special needs. The two have, at best, a difficult relationship. Veblen is an only child.

Veblen loves and talks to squirrels as if human. Paul cannot stand them.

Both bring the baggage of the their past to this relationship, as we all do in real life. Both seem to be so different from each other and so ill-matched. But are they? And, at the end of it, is it the differences that matter or is it the things that draw them together?

Primarily, this book is a character study of two disparate people with dysfunctional families and their ability or inability to form a strong relationship. Somewhat of a plot exists with Paul's research, but beyond that, nothing much really happens in this story.

Admittedly, parts are funny as stories about quirky people and dysfunctional families often are. Mostly though, the book is just slow-moving and odd. This book has parts  - for example, the squirrels, the appendices to the book, and the somewhat tangentially related pictures scattered throughout - that I just don't get. I don't relate to the characters or the story nor do I find them particularly engaging. Odd, weird, and quirky works in many cases, but in this case, the book seems to work at being quirky, which, for me, means that quirkiness loses its charm.

I look to the title for some help deciphering if the book may have a hidden meaning. The main character is named Veblen, after economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). His main work focused on the idea of conspicuous consumption, the idea of acquiring material things as an expression of wealth and power. His work and theories themselves also don't seem to have any relationship to the events of the book. Veblen idealizes this work, and the fact that her mother chose to give her this name. However, by the end, even that goes in a direction different than she anticipates.

This book reminds of a connect-the-dots image. It has lots of dots: the significance of Veblen's name, Veblen and Paul, Veblen and the squirrels, Paul and his research, Paul and his new employer, Paul and his parents, Paul and his brother, Veblen and her mother, Veblen and her father, and many more. For me,  unfortunately, the image never really comes together. The lines that connect all these dots into a cohesive story seem missing. Maybe, the squirrels can help. Then again, maybe not.

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

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mark Bittman's Kitchen Matrix

Title:  Mark Bittman's Kitchen Matrix
Author:  Mark Bittman
Publication Information:  Pam Krauss Books. 2015. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0804188017 / 978-0804188012

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

Opening Sentence:  "For years I've said, 'If you can cook 10 recipes, you can cook 10,000,' and while I've always felt it was true, I've never believed it more strongly than I do now."

Favorite Quote:  "Those of us who cook believe that you have to cook to eat well."

Mark Bittman is a food journalist - former columnist for The New York Times and creator of many cookbooks. He is a winner of the many prestigious awards for his food writing. Kitchen Matrix is the latest of his cookbooks and is unlike any that have come before.

This cookbook is organized like many other all purpose cookbooks: Appetizers and Entertaining; Soups, Stews, and Sandwiches; Vegetables; Pasta, Grains, and Beans; Fish and Seafood; Poultry and Eggs; Meat; Condiments and Seasonings; Fruit; and Desserts and Baking. All of these are typical sections in a general cookbook.

It is when you reach into one of these sections that the unique nature of this cookbook comes through.   Going through one section - vegetables - illustrates the difference in this book. First and foremost, the section is not page after page of recipes. Instead, it is a base set of topics - a dish like salad, an ingredient like pumpkin, or a cuisine like vegan. Each topic includes introductory text and base directions; for example, the introduction on salads includes directions on turning any salad into a chopped salad and directions on how to assemble a vinaigrette dressing. This introduction is followed by a few pages on variations a home cook can create; the salad section has ten variations described in two pages. Each one has a full-color picture and a brief listing of ingredients and directions. Some sections also include recipe generators with ingredient categories and universal directions indicating how to pick ingredients; for example, spring rolls (found in the grains section of the cookbook) include a list of proteins, fruits and vegetables, and dipping sauces with universal directions on how to put ingredients together into a spring roll. A lot of information - "more than 700 recipes and techniques" - compacted into a relatively small package - a 300 page cookbook.

I have to admit. I love to cook. I love cookbooks. I very rarely follow an exact recipe except in baking. I improvise and modify recipes based on what ingredients I have on hand and what flavor I want. I use my cookbooks more for inspiration than anything else. This cookbook is perfect for that kind of improvisational cooking. Mind you, the recipes and directions can be followed exactly, but as the introduction states, "Many are meant to facilitate improvisation in the kitchen, catering to all sorts of cooking styles and preferences."

Now to the details of the usability of this book: 

  • The full-color photography in the book is wonderfully appetizing. It is very helpful to envision the completed dish before starting out.
  • The physical book is a good size. (I have a print version of this book.)
  • The beginning of each major section is marked with a bright red cover page that is visible even on the edge of the printed page. This makes it easy to move to a particular section.
  • The ingredients for each recipe are clearly marked in bold print.
  • The ingredients for the recipes seem to be things readily available to the home cook.
  • I love that the book has so many variations on each theme. It allows dishes to be tailored to suit different tastes and different available ingredients.
  • The book includes a detailed index which is helpful.
  • The table of contents at the beginning of the book is only a listing of the main sections as given above. Each section does have its own table of contents also, which helps mitigate this issue.
  • If you are looking to follow an exact recipe, the directions are somewhat scattered. The main introduction of the book has ground rules that apply to all the recipes. The introductory text to each section/topic include directions that apply to that section/topic. The recipes themselves have ingredients and directions.
  • The directions for each recipe are not detailed and assume an understanding of cooking terms and skills. If you are not comfortable in the kitchen, this may not be the book for you.
  • The book has to be turned on its side to follow the recipe generators. On the one hand, it makes the recipe generator sections stand out. On the other hand, it is inconvenient.
Overall, a great addition to my cookbook collection with inspiration for many meals to come.

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fates and Furies

Title:  Fates and Furies
Author:  Lauren Groff
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1594634475 / 978-1594634475

Book Source:  I read this book based on the publicity it is receiving.

Opening Sentence:  "A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain's sudden sweeping."

Favorite Quote:  "Tell me the difference between tragedy and comedy ... Solemnity versus humor. Gravity versus lightness ... False ... A trick. There's no difference. It's a question of perspective. Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you're seeing."

In mythology, the Fates are a group of goddesses weaving the destiny of men. The Furies or Erinyes are the goddesses of justice and vengeance. Put this symbolism into the context of a marriage, and it tells you the direction this story is to take.

The main characters of the book are Lotto and Mathilde. Lotto, of course, is a game of chance. The meaning of the name Mathilde in French is strong in war or battle. Put this symbolism into the context of a marriage, and it tells your the direction of this story.

Here is the face of this story. Lotto and Mathilde meet in college when they are both students at Vassar. The attraction and love is almost instantaneous. They marry right out of college, despite his family's wishes and their friends' warnings. Much to everyone's surprise, the marriage lasts, and decades laters, they appear as loving a couple as at the very start.

A wholesome vision on the surface, right? As we know, the fact is that things are never as they appear on the surface, particularly in relationships. The premise of this book is a strong one. Every marriage has two perspectives. What you see and feel depends on the vision you bring to a situation and on what you decide to see and what you decide to overlook.

Part of me wants to applaud the premise and the symbolism of this book. Unfortunately, most of me is still cringing from the details and form this story takes.

The first half of the book - Fates - is the story from Lotto's perspective. Told through a set of parties the couple hosts and through the plays that Lotto ultimately writes, the book paints a picture of a rather passive bohemian lifestyle of parties, friends, struggles, and successes. Parts read like erotica, for Lotto and Mathilde seem to communicate only through sex. A lot of it comes across as pretentious - for example, a play that morphs Antigone into "Go;" a mother her children call "Muvva;" and a dog named "God." Really?!

The second half of the book - Furies - is from Mathilde's perspective. This part is less straight forward for it is more her reflections through present and different parts of her past. It is more developed than the first part of the book; in fact, Mathilde's story reveals so much more of Lotto's past than the first half of the book. However, bizarre is the word that comes to mind for Mathilde's story. Lies, deceit, revenge, sociopathic tendencies, prostitution, abortion, and murder are just some of the cringe-worthy factors of Mathilde's life past and present.

Books that make me think, books that take on difficult topics, and books that make me uncomfortable are often the best possible reads. At some level, this book does all of that. Unfortunately, more than anything though, this books makes me want to walk away, shed the unpleasantness, and wish I could unsee some of the images drawn in this book. I am left with an impression of a book that tries way too hard to make some philosophical point but, at the end, seems to me a pretentious show with no point in sight. This book is memorable, but, for me, unfortunately in all the wrong ways.

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Song of Hartgrove Hall

Title:  The Song of Hartgrove Hall
Author:  Natasha Solomons
Publication Information:  Plume. 2015. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0147517591 / 978-0147517593

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

Opening Sentence:  "Edie sang at her own funeral."

Favorite Quote:  "If grief is the thug who punches you in the gut, then loneliness is his goon who holds back your arms and renders you helpless before the onslaught."

The Song of Hartgrove Hall is the song of Harry Fox-Talbot, the youngest of the three Fox-Talbot brothers. World War II has ended, and the family - the General and his three sons Jack, George and Harry - are returning home to Hartgrove Hall.

Hartgrove Hall in Dorset, England is the grand estate, abused and neglected during World War II and now back in the hands of a family who don't have the means to restore it or even maintain it. The descriptions of the Hall and the woods around it all conjure up vivid images. In its setting and structure, the book reminds me of Kate Morton's books. This book is not as Gothic nor as much as a mystery as some of Kate Morton's books, but the sense of place is definitely similar.

For the Fox-Talbot boys, Hartgrove Hall is home and heritage. Jack is the golden boy, his father's inheritor and the one who seems beloved by all and who seems always at the center of the party. George is the quiet, retiring one. Harry is the youngest and the one whose dream is to pursue music. Amidst these gentlemen is Edie Rose, a beautiful, popular singer with a past all her own.

In the beautiful but decrepit setting of Hartgrove Hall, some fall in love. Some sacrifice for those they love. Some sacrifice to save the home they love. Decisions are made, and consequences follow.

Fast forwards decades later. A Fox-Talbot brother still lives at Hartgrove Hall and mourns the recent loss of his wife Edie. Life seems to hold no joy until he discovers his grandson's affinity for music. Four year old Robin, it appears, is a piano prodigy.

Back and forth, back and forth, the book traverses past and present, putting the story together bit by bit. The past and the present really form two separate stories tied together by the main character and the music. The present day story is one of grief, family, and a child. The past is the story of a self-centered young man, who pursues what he wants without much regard for others. In the present day, his loss and his love for his grandchild elicit sympathy. In the story of the past, his self-absorbed actions elicit sorrow for those who love him. Both stories carry a love of and an education in music and the art of song collecting as a preservation of history.

For me, the emotion and reaction is the piece missing from the book. The fact of the story is that two people build their own happiness on betraying the life and joy of a third person - a person they both claim to love. This issue is in many ways at the heart of this book, but at the same time is not really dealt with. The emotional impact of that betrayal is nowhere to be found in this book. As a result, the story feels incomplete. I keep waiting for more - more of a struggle, more of a conflict, more emotion, but it never comes - not in the story of the past and not in its present day conclusion. I keep reading because the book feels as if it is building to an emotional moment. I enjoy the build up but am left unsatisfied by the conclusion for the emotion never comes.

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

Humans of New York: Stories

Title:  Humans of New York:  Stories
Author:  Brandon Stanton
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2015. 432 pages.
ISBN:  1250058902 / 978-1250058904

Book Source:  I read this book because I love Brandon Stanton's work.

Opening Sentence:  "Occasionally I'm invited to colleges and seminars to explain the story behind Humans of New York."

Favorite Quote:  "Listen, a person is like a rubber-band ball. We've all got a lot of bad rubber bands, and a lot of good rubber bands, and they're all wrapped up together. And you've got to have both types of bands or your rubber-band ball ain't gonna bounce. And no use trying to untangle them You know what I'm saying?" [from one of the many stories in this book]

I love finding books where I see my own story and my own life reflected from the pages, and Brandon Stanton's work often does that. Even when the stories that do not reflect my life, I love and appreciate the humanity that they capture - the stories of humanity one person at a time.

A little history of the project - Brandon Stanton was not a photographer. He got his first camera in January 2010 while he lived and worked in Chicago. In July 2010, he lost his job. Over the next couple of months, he slowly travelled from Chicago to New York, taking pictures all the way. Upon his arrival in New York, his initial intent was to create a photographic census of New York City -  10,000 portraits plotted on a city map.

He had a blog and some visibility. A friend, then, created a Facebook page and a Tumblr blog. The project went viral. The Facebook page alone has almost 16 million followers as of today.

At this point, Brandon Stanton's work should really be called Humans of the World. In 2014, the United Nations invited him to visit and photograph in a 50 day tour of 11 countries around the world.  He followed with another trip to even more countries in 2015. Many of these countries are in the headlines of news media, most often for very negative reasons. Brandon Stanton's work provides a look at the people behind the name and news of that country. People like you and me. In fact, in an interview, he remarked on the similarities that exist, "I think the similarities I’ve noticed are the aspirations of people. It seems that everywhere I go, people want the same things – security, education, family. It’s just that so many people have no avenues through which to obtain these things."

This is the third compilation of his work to be published. The first was Humans of New York, and the second was Little Humans. The images remain the same - one portrait at a time. The stories accompanying each portrait are a little more in depth.

The book has no overt organization, but the portraits and accompanying stories do seem to be grouped by general topics. I am amazed by the intensely personal details people are willing to share in this forum.  Some of the topics include parenting, relationships, addiction, mental illness, terminal illness, death, dreams, hopes, aspirations, despair - really any and all aspects of life. Some share a simple moment. Some are sweet and some shocking. All are touching in their own unique way.

This book does not capture the images of of Brandon Stanton's trip beyond the United States (I hope those books are coming!), but from its base in New York City, it does capture a world all the way from a homeless person on the streets of the city to the nation's President in the White House.  Perhaps, in one or more of the stories, it may even capture you. I will continue to follow his work and remind myself that every person - every single one - has a story if we take the time to listen.

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

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A House of My Own: Stories from My Life

Title:  A House of My Own:  Stories From My Life
Author:  Sandra Cisneros
Publication Information:  Alfred A. Knopf. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  038535133X / 978-0385351331

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

Opening Sentence:  "A long time ago, which was yesterday, I could tell time by the typeface on my manuscripts."

Favorite Quote:  "I believe books are medicine. A library is a medicine cabinet. What can heal one person may not work at all for somebody else. You know when something is healing you, just as you know when something isn't."

I was introduced to Sandra Cisneros work through The House on Mango Street. This book is and is not similar in structure. Both take a vignette approach to telling a story. The House on Mango Street tells a fictional but somewhat auto-biographical tale through Esperanza, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago. The vignettes are short as is the book overall, but through it emerges a complete picture of a girl, a family, and a neighborhood.

This book is more disparate and disjointed. It is a collection of previously written works - essays, articles, poetry, speeches, and letters pulled together to create a "jigsaw autobiography." The topics range from personal stories to tributes to responses to criticism to social commentary. Expecting more of an autobiography, the book is frustrating at times because no attempt is made to pull the pieces together into a whole - to assemble the image out of the jigsaw pieces if you will.

However, that frustration disappears as soon as I let go of the expectation of an entire image. With the expectation gone, I can appreciate the individual pieces for what they are. At that point, Sandra Cisneros' writing pulls me in. As is true of any collection, some pieces speak more to me than others. Some make me laugh, and some make me cry. Some touch my heart and tell my story, and some I quickly skim through.

The one jarring note through the book is the introductions to each piece. I understand they are necessary to provide context for how and when the piece was written. They are even set apart by font and color.   Perhaps, the objective of the introductions is to create a whole out of the pieces, but I don't really get that sense. The pragmatic descriptions are so very different in style from the pieces themselves that they pull me out of the "story" such as it is. They are also a constant reminder that the book is based on work already published elsewhere; it's not new but repackaged. I would have preferred for these references perhaps to be in an appendix such that I could seek them out by choice.

The introduction does specify that the book is structured "to arrange the stories in the sequence I wrote them." Again, I end up reading the book as individual, stand alone pieces without a sense of cohesion or chronology. So, the organization does not really impact my ultimate experience with the book.

I read books in print and in e-book formats.  Often times, the format does not influence how I feel about the book. For this one, it does. I read this book in hardcover, and it is a beautiful book. The size is about 5 inches by 8 inches, but the book feels really heavy for its size. It is presented on art book paper, which is lovely to the touch. The book includes full color photographs. For me, all of these add to the enjoyment of the book, something I would not have felt with the book in a different format.

For all its disparate notes, the book does end on a note of homecoming and of having found home. It has the sense of an ending but also a beginning. I am glad to have gone along on the journey and look forward to what might be next.

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Devil in a Blue Dress

Title:  Devil in a Blue Dress
Author:  Walter Mosley
Publication Information:  WW Norton. 1990. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0393028542 / 978-0393028546

Book Source:  I read this book for a book discussion at my local library.

Opening Sentence:  "I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's bar."

Favorite Quote:  "I never minded that those white boys hated me, but if they didn't respect me I was ready to fight."

Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins is down on his luck and at risk for losing his house. He has been laid off and needs money to make his mortgage payment.  In 1940s Los Angeles, jobs and opportunities for a middle-aged black man are hard to come by. A friend, Joppy, recommends him for a job to a rich customer with some questionable businesses, but the money is ready and available. So, Easy signs on.

The job sounds simple enough - find a young woman for a man and don't ask too many questions. Of course, a beautiful girl with a shadowed past is at the heart of the mystery, and, of course, things are never that simple. Thefts, affairs, deceptions, double crosses, and murders abound as Easy winds his way through this mystery and through all the characters who are involved. Each turn of the page reveals a new twist or connection.

I find the story itself difficult to follow and remain engaged in, partially because of the number of characters and partially because of the lack of any likable characters. Easy Rawlins is not a particularly likable protagonist. He is surrounded by some unsavory characters - a whole lot of them. The characters and relationships intertwine and overlap. At times, I find myself a little lost as to who's who and what the character's role in the book in.

The physical descriptions, whether of violence or human relationships, are not for me either. The descriptions do create a dark, gritty atmosphere for the novel, but that is about all. This may be typical of the hard-boiled noir crime story, but it is not for me.

As much as the book is a mystery, it is also a social commentary on race relations, prejudices, and bigotry in 1940s Los Angeles. Interestingly, the prejudices work in both directions - white vs. black and black vs. white. For me, this could have been by far the most intriguing aspect of the book. Unfortunately, the language of the book really gets in my way. Because of the frequent use of "white boy..." and "n_______," I end up focused on the language not the ideas being expressed. I am, however, left with the realization that, in this regard, the book is current and relevant even today. The language may have changed, but the underlying prejudices sadly remain.

In addition, I find the writing of the book rather difficult to read. Much of the story is told through dialogue, and the dialogue represents the vernacular of the time, the place, and the lifestyle of the characters. The contractions, the dropped letters, and the grammar all go along with the environment the book establishes. I just find it difficult to navigate an entire book of such written dialogue; perhaps, that very aspect may prove wonderful as a audiobook.

This book launched an entire series of Easy Rawlins mysteries. It won awards upon publication and, in 1995, led to a movie adaptation. In other words, the book and the series has its following. As such, this book is a prime example why I love being involved in book groups. I don't think I would have read this book except for this discussion group. Even though this is not really the book for me (or rather I am not the reader for this book), I enjoyed the opportunity to read something so completely different than what I normally read.

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

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

Title:  A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Author:  Jackie Copleton
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2015. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0143128256 / 978-0143128250

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

Opening Sentence:  "Even the kindness of the half-light could not hide his disfigurement."

Favorite Quote:  "You live with loneliness long enough and it becomes a kind of company."

"There can be no words for what we heard that day. There must never be. To give this sound a name might mean it could happen again. What word can capture the roar of every thunderstorm you might have heard, every avalanche and volcano and tsunami that you might have seen tear across the land, every city consumed by flames and waves and winds? Never find the language for such an agony of noise and the silence that followed." These are the words with which this book describes the Pikadon. In Japanese, "pika" means bright light, and "don" means boom. In World War II, with the atomic bomb, the word pikadon was born to describe that which can never truly be described.

For the Allies, the atomic bomb helped end the War and helped save many Allied lives. For the Japanese, the atomic bomb killed hundreds and thousands of people - from the immediate impact, from injuries sustained, and even decades later from the exposure to the radiation. It was a disaster of unimaginable scale created and inflicted by man.

For Amaterasu Takahashi, it destroys her life for she and her husband Kenzo are certain they lost their daughter Yuko and their young grandson Hideo that day. The two leave Nagasaki behind for they cannot live constantly surrounded by the reminders of their loss. They move far, far away to the United States. They bury the past but cannot leave it behind. Amaterasu spends her life not just grieving but grappling with the guilt of "What if?" What if she had made different choices? Would her daughter have been where she was at the moment of the bomb's arrival? Would Yuko have died?

She drowns her guilt in drinking and in refusing to let the past surface. One day, however, the past comes knocking at her door. A man comes to visit and claims to be her grandson. With him, he brings a package from his adoptive mother with an explanation of how they came to find him and where he has been all these years.

Amaterasu refuses to believe but is drawn back into the past all the same. The package Hideo brings also contains letters written to Yuko by the doctor Jomei Sato. Jomei Sato not only adopted Hideo but also has a past deeply connected to the Takahashi family. This journey to the past also forces Amaterasu to finally read Yuko's journals, which she has kept hidden since the Pikadon. These memories of the time before the Pikadon finally lead Amaterasu to her own past.

Amaterasu's reflections and memories, Yuko's letters, and Sato's letters become the narrators of this book. The point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph with no real indication of the shift, creating a tangled tale. It is difficult to follow at times and requires quiet concentration to read. This is not a book to be picked up and put down lightly. In the context of the story, however, the style works, for that tangled perspective matches the complicated, overlapping relationships between Amaterasu, Kenzo, Jomei Sato, Yuko, and Hideo.

The book is slow to start for the relationships and connections are slowly revealed throughout the book. Hints exist through the story, but the full impact is not felt until well into the book. The context of Pikadon creates an overwhelming sense of sadness and incompleteness - words left unspoken, arguments left unresolved, and loved left unexpressed.

I find myself getting more and more involved the further into the book I get until I am furiously turning pages to the end. The relationships leave me in turn cringing and in turn filled with sadness. Part of me questions the somewhat far-fetched connections as they are revealed, but part of me is carried along with the emotions. I put logic aside and let emotions carry the day. The complex relationships, the acknowledgement of a long buried past, and the sense of both loss and hope create a haunting, memorable debut novel.

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015


Title:  Keepsake
Author:  Kristina Riggle
Publication Information:  William Morrow Paperbacks. 2012. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0062003070 / 978-0062003072

Book Source:  I read this book for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "The stranger gave me an empty smile."

Favorite Quote:  "The funny thing about denial, though, is that you never know you're doing it."

The Mayo Clinics defines hoarding with the following characteristics:
  • Difficulty getting rid of possessions.
  • Distress at the thought of getting rid of things.
  • Homes filled to capacity with stuff.
  • Potential of the behavior and the physical things to impact daily functions of life.
  • Inability of a hoarder to see hoarding as a problem.
Hoarding as a topic has been in the media a lot recently. TV shows are dedicated to the topic. Articles are written about it. Psychologists study it and treat it as a psychological disorder.

In this book, Trish is a hoarder. It has cost her her marriage and her older son. It may now cost her her younger son, who is injured at their home as a result of her hoard of stuff. Social Services warn that the court will remove the child from her care unless she can provide a safe environment for him to live in.

Trisha loves her son, and he loves her. The question is whether her love for her son is enough for her to overcome her compulsion to hoard. Family - her father, her sister, her ex-husband, and her older son - get involved. Emotions and history are revealed, leading eventually to the root cause of Trish's hoarding.

The story is told from the alternative perspectives of Trish and her sister Mary. Their stories relate back to their mother's story. She was a hoarder herself, with roots reaching back to her own childhood trauma. Hoarding led to her losing her husband, one daughter, and eventually her life.

Growing up in the same household, Trish and Mary have had diametrically opposite reactions to their mother's hoarding. Both have other reasons for their behavior, but their childhood plays a key role. Trisha has become a hoarder herself while Mary chooses to live a somewhat sterile life - both in her environment and in her relationships with others. They exhibit different behaviors, but both lead a secluded, closed-off life.

Their alternating perspectives are sometimes hard to follow in the book, particularly at the start to each chapter. Since both are written as first person narratives, it takes a few paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter for me to adjust to whose voice I am hearing. I find myself re-reading the chapter opening once the perspective is established.

The first two third of the book is slow moving, with lots of descriptions of Trish's hoarding, the looming specter of Social Services, and her family's attempts at intervention. Trish struggles. People try to intervene. Anger and sadness ensue. The cycle repeats several times with different people. Trish and Social Services. Trish and her older son. Trish and Mary. Trish and her ex-husband. Trish and her father. Mary's story seems secondary, relies on one key relationship, and is equally slow to develop.

Then, all of a sudden, the story moves forward. The "whys" are revealed, issues are resolved, and the book ends rather abruptly and rather neatly. It seems that the narrative is in a supporting role to the information in this book. The book is more about the topic of hoarding, its possible causes, its impact on families, and its treatment. The narrative becomes a vehicle through which to deliver that message. Once the message is done, so is the narrative. Open issues remain, but the implied resolutions are clear. The mess of life is cleaned up too neatly, literally and figuratively.

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

Monday, November 2, 2015

White Collar Girl

Title:  White Collar Girl
Author:  RenĂ©e Rosen
Publication Information:  NAL. 2015. 448 pages.
ISBN:  045147497X / 978-0451474971

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was Voltaire and me."

Favorite Quote:  "But wasn't life just like that? When I think back on all the stupid things I've worried about and fretted over .. silly things that never came to pass or amounted to much - and then the one thing you never expected, that you never saw coming ... blindsides you and changes your life forever."

1950s-1960s Chicago was the hub of the so-called Daley machine, a world of politics, the Mob, corruption, scandal, and cover ups. 1950s-1960s Chicago was also the home of great newspapers like the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune at a time when people still relied on the newspapers for their news. Reporters sought to outdo do each to get the scoop, the big story. 1950s-1960s Chicago was also the time of newspaperMEN.

Into this environment comes Jordan Walsh, young, ambitious, and a woman. She comes from a long line of news people and wants to make her mark as her father did and her brother would have had he not died.

She lands a job with the Tribune but is assigned to the society desk, writing about weddings, celebrity sightings, etiquette and all such things. She wants to report the "real" news - the news that comes from investigative reporting and is the stuff of front page headlines. So, she does both; she writes her pieces as assigned but constantly looks for opportunities to pursue the real news as she sees it.

This takes her into the world of politics and corruption. The book pulls from the history of the times, relating events such as a meat industry scandal, government corruption, election fraud, accidents, an assassination, and more. The history becomes part of the story. Fortunately, the main subject of the book remains Jordan Walsh and her story not the history of the times.

Certain themes carry throughout Jordan's story. One is of a qualified young woman breaking the glass ceiling into a business that has traditionally been a man's world. She is laughed at, ridiculed, pushed aside, and resented in equal measure. She does work, only to have credit given to a man. She refuses to be deterred. She just works that much harder to prove herself. Ultimately, her persistence and qualifications lead to a grudging respect from her colleagues and bosses.

Another theme is that of balancing ambition and career against family and relationships. At times, the people in her life are threatened by her ambition and success. At other times, she unknowingly sacrifices relationships in pursuit of a story. It is unclear whether or not she can find a balance.  The counterpoint is also presented in the character of M, who finds herself at her job for many different reasons, but wants nothing more than to be married and at home raising children. Even for her, it is unclear whether a balance exists. The book does not pass judgement but shows both points of view.

The question of ethics also repeats through the book. How far would you go to get the story and to expose a wrong? How far would you go to protect a journalistic source? How far would you go to protect your own reputation as a journalist? What happens when the journalist's story becomes personal? If the goal is to bring wrongdoing to justice, do the ends justify the means? Again, the book implies no judgement, but shows these dilemmas through the different characters.

In some way, this book is very much a period piece - from the historical events to the manner of dress to peoples' attitudes about race, religion, and gender roles. At the same time, the themes of the book are universal. The struggle of independent women pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated fields continues even today. The struggle to find work-life balance continues for men and women everywhere. These themes take this book beyond enjoyable historical fiction to a conversation relevant for today's world.

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus

Title:  Frankenstein
Author:  Mary Shelley
Publication Information:  Lackington, Huges, Harding, Mavor & Jones (original). 1818 (original). 280 pages (original).
ISBN:  1904633420 / 978-1904633426 (for the Collector's Library edition)

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

Opening Sentence:  "You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings"

Favorite Quote:  "I cannot believe that I am he whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone."

My biggest reaction to this book is not horror. It is not fear. It is not disgust. My biggest reaction is surprise. This book, its characters, and its history are completely not what I expected. The short version I always knew of this book was that the story was about a monstrous creation who wreaked havoc on his creator and everyone and everything around him.

I remember being surprised as a child when I learned that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster but its creator. The Monster has no name. Having read the book, I now question who is the monster - the Monster or its creator? Both? Neither?

The biggest surprise in the book is the Monster itself and its "human" nature. The epigraph of the book is the Monster's question:
"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?"

The original line comes from John Milton's Paradise Lost and is spoken by Adam lamenting his fall from paradise. Despite the Monster's heinous acts, I feel sorry for him. Here is a creature, who came into being through no decision of his own, who is the only one of his kind, and who therefore is all alone. He spends his "life" looking for a place to belong and for someone to love. When that cannot be found, he turns to anger and revenge. Yet, that too brings him no peace. The book is the tale of a monster but a surprisingly human story.

For most of the story, I prefer the Monster to his creator Victor Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein is human and is surrounded by love and friendship but he takes it for granted. He reaches his goal of creating this "alive" Monster but immediately turns his back on his own creation. He spends the rest of his life regretting his creation and the consequences his choices bring. His creation and his guilt erode his life, but he keeps that knowledge from his family, only telling his tale to a complete stranger. For being a creator, he seems considerably more passive than his own creation.

The structure of book is a story within a story within a story. A captain of a vessel is on his own adventure. He writes to his sister of his journey. Upon meeting Frankenstein, he writes his sister of Frankenstein's story. Frankenstein tells his sad tale on board this vessel, and within his tale, the reader hears the story of the Monster. Somehow, all the layers remain distinct and unique but all meld together into one cohesive whole.

Another surprise about this book is how it came to be written. Mary Shelley was only eighteen when she wrote the story. It was published when she was twenty, but without her name as the author. Her name appeared as the author with a later edition. The book was also significantly rewritten in 1831; thus, your experience with the story may be considerably different based on if you read the 1818 original or the 1831 revision.

This story first came to be in The Year Without a Summer. In 1815, a volcanic eruption occurred at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. It was one of the most powerful eruptions ever recorded, and its effects were felt globally, leading to climate change and major agricultural shortages. Mary Shelley, her husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friends spent the cold summer of 1816 in Switzerland. The story goes that the weather kept them all indoors. As a way to pass the time, their friend Lord Byron suggested creating ghost stories to go with the dismal conditions and to pass the time. Mary Shelley's story over the next two years developed into this book.

The book is not easy to read; it is dark and dense and takes time to get through. Yet, for all its surprises, for its very human story, and for its intriguing history, it is an incredibly memorable read.

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