Saturday, July 30, 2016

Broth & Stock

Title:  Broth & Stock from the Nourished Kitchen
Author:  Jennifer McGruther
Publication Information:  Ten Speed Press. 2016. 183 pages.
ISBN:  1607749319 / 978-1607749318

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

Opening Sentence:  "Most days of the week, I keep an enameled cast-iron pot on the back burner of my stove where bones simmer in water to make broth."

Favorite Quote:  "They are foods not only of comfort, but also of frugality and the pressure to waste as little as possible, lest bellies go hungry. In this way, to make broth not only fills the functional role of sating hunger and thirst, but also teaches us a lesson in the values of patience, simplicity, and thrift. There is virtue in the humble soup pot."

A warm bowl of soup has long been the cure for many ills in many household. A bowl of chicken soup to help a cold. A hot mug of broth to warm up the winter. A rich fragrant stock to cook rice. Making broth is a normal part of my cooking life and a centuries old traditions found in almost every culture throughout the world. Broth, particularly the idea of bone broths, is not a new trend, but a cooking staple made popular and made the "in" thing through restaurants, websites, and book such as this one and Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook.

This book "out of the box" is beautiful. I love the many pictures and consistency of the photography. The book has many full page images; most of them feature a bowl set upon a wood texture. This consistency creates a unified feel to the entire book. The wood textures emphasizes the homey, rustic feel that a bowl of soup conjures up. The simplicity of the bowls and the photo angles allow the food in the bowls to shine.

Now the content. What is broth? At its very basic interpretation, it is water given richness, flavor, and dimension by what you choose to add to the water. The possibilities are endless, from kitchen scraps to cuts of meat bought specifically to this purpose. So, why a cookbook? I look for three things. The first is new ingredients and combinations that I have not considered before. The second is techniques by which to improve my cooking. The third is innovative ways in which to use this flavorful base.

This book starts off with about fifteen master broth recipes, covering a variety of bases (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, fish, and a few that can be made with no meat products). The master recipes use very few ingredients or seasonings, allowing the broth to be used further as a ingredient in other recipes. If the intention is to drink the broth as prepared, the cook will have to apply their own flavors to the broth resulting from these master recipes. A concern for me is that most of the master recipes use wine as an ingredient. As someone who neither drinks nor cooks with alcohol, this is an issue. The introduction discusses the use of an acid in broths and suggests wine or vinegar, clearly stating a preference for wine. I do use vinegar in my broths; so, be warned, that vinegar for wine is not a 1:1 substitution. I use a couple of tablespoons of vinegar to a pot of broth; the book unfortunately, does not give the substitution amount for its recipes.

The techniques in the book discuss the same techniques found in other soup references. Broth making is a combination of the ratio of ingredients to water, flavorings, skimming and straining, and the length of time a broth is cooked. Vary these combinations, and the end product changes. The book does go through some of the options and variations and the impact of each. The one idea new to me is the technique to create your own instant stock powder. I have made and frozen stock and broth for future use but never cooked it down to then dehydrate it. It is an intriguing idea, especially if you are short on freezer room.

Beyond the techniques and master recipes, the books includes about "forty recipes using these stocks in complete meals." The only issue is that not all the recipes are based on the broths themselves. Some such as a roast chicken, oxtail stew, and chicken in wine with mushrooms, peas, and herbs use no broth at all. Some such as the broth for infants and the beef tea are in effect recipes for other kinds of broths. Some such as the cream of chicken soup do not not rely on a master recipe but rather incorporate the broth making process into the recipe itself. While the photographs look tempting, the grouping of recipes and the entire book itself does not follow what it sets out to deliver.

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Don't Tell Me You're Afraid

Title:  Don't Tell Me You're Afraid
Author:  Giuseppe Catozzella (Author), Anne Milano Appel (Translator)
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2014 (original). 2016 (English). 256 pages.
ISBN:  1594206414 / 978-1594206412

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

Opening Sentence:  "The morning that Ali and I became brother and sister was hot as blaze, and we were huddled under the skimpy shade of an acacia."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes the weightiest decisions are carried along on the slight drift of a breath of air. And we with them, inadequate, flimsy."

"A seventeen-year-old girl, skinny as a rail, who comes from a war-torn country, without a track and without a coach, who fights as hard as she can and comes in last. A perfect story for Western sensibilities..." That describes Samia Yusuf Omar, a Somali girl born into poverty, into war, and into a world full of extremists. She is also a Somali girl with one dream - to run. This book is a fictionalized account of her actual story.

The book is a fictionalized account. It is dramatically told. You may agree or disagree with that approach. However, the story at the heart of the book is true. Strip away all the drama, and the story itself is still an amazing one.

The book introduces Samia at the age of eight. She lives in poverty and in the shadow of war and extremism. Yet, her world is full of love and friendship. Samia runs in joy and freedom. Through her eyes, we see both the love of family and friends and the fear of the shadows that surround her.

Slowly, the shadow of war and religious and political extremism grows into a looming giant.  The joy of Samia's life is stripped away, some slowly and some in cataclysmic events that alter her life forever. The love of family sustains her. Still, Samia runs. Sometimes in secret. Sometimes hidden. Sometimes in fear. Through her eyes, we see the grief, the fear, and, yes, still the joy.

Her skills catches the attention of the Somalian Olympic committee. She represents Somalia in the 2008 Olympics in China. She comes in last in her race. She returns home and sets her sights on the 2012 Olympics. She comes home to even more losses and even more political and religious extremism. Again, through her eyes, we see the heart breaking decision to leave - to undertake the Journey that makes Samia a refugee with the hope of freedom in Europe and perhaps another Olympics.

The remainder of the book is the story of the Journey. "The Journey is something we've all had in our heads from the time we were born ... It's like a mythological creature that can just as easily lead to salvation or death." The journey leads through the Sahara dessert. It leads through the world of human trafficking, prisons, and thieves. It leads through exhaustion, fear, despair, and starvation. It leads through the world where "truth is traded for survival. For a trifle. For naught."

Throughout, the reader is along on Samia's journey, seeing it through her eyes. Every time hope is found. Every time hope is betrayed. Every time a friend is found along the way. Every time impossible decisions are made to survive. It is heart breaking, all the more so for being real.

The story is at once a deeply personal one and a societal one.  Through Samia's eyes, we see her family and her own joys and losses. Through her eyes, we also see the world of Somalia and its struggle and crisis. Through her eyes, we also see the impact of extremism of those who live with it on a daily basis and those who object.  Through her eyes, we see the desperation in the decision to seek refuge away from the place you call home and away from those you love.

If you know Samia's story, then you know how it ends. Read the book anyways. I did not know Samia's story before reading the book. Learning that the book was based on an actual story, I looked up the history first. I then knew how it ended. At that point, I was not sure I was going to enjoy the book because, after all, I know how it ends. I read it anyways, and I am so glad. Even knowing the ending, I find myself lost in the emotional story and the dramatic storytelling.

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

The City Baker's Guide to Country Living

Title:  The City Baker's Guide to Country Living
Author:  Louise Miller
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2016. 356 pages.
ISBN:  1101981202 / 978-1101981207

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

Opening Sentence:  "The night I lit the Emerson Club on fire had been perfect for making meringue."

Favorite Quote:  "You have a say, young lady. Don't you forget it. And don't wait too long to decide. Not making a decision is making a decision."

The City Baker's Guide to Country Living floated to the top of my to read pile because I was in the mood for a simple, sweet story. No shocking twists, no unpredictable turns. Just a feel good book perfect for a summer afternoon. This book delivers on all counts.

The "city" is Boston. The "baker" is Olivia Rawlings. The book begins with the city baker involved in an unfortunate accident that results in the dinner club where she works catching fire. The baker makes a quick exit, not waiting for the fallout. Therein comes "country living" in Guthrie, Vermont, a small town that is home to Olivia's best friend Hannah.

Olivia's reputation as a baker precedes her. A few conversations and small town relationships lead to a job as baker at the Sugar Maple Inn. All of sudden, Olivia is enveloped into the life of the small town with all that entails. The book does a wonderful job of capturing the warmth and charm of its small town setting. It's a place where everyone knows each other, and everyone knows everybody's business. It's a place where people have long memories and even longer grudges. It's a place that creates an image of a simpler life, with music, laughter, long walks, and the smell of freshly baked apple pie. It's a place where strangers become family, and, of course, where romance enters the picture.

The main character Olivia is a charming, sympathetic one. Her answer to life's conflicts seems to be to run and to dye her hair a different vibrant shades. Let's just say she goes through a lot of hair colors through the book. She explains it, "People say happiness starts from within, but I'm a firm believer in 'fake it till you make it.'" Olivia has been on her own since the age of sixteen, and underneath her bravado lies a girl looking for home and a place to belong. She doesn't always make the best choices, but still, I want things to work out for her. I want her to find home.

Martin, the male lead, is not as well developed, but the side characters and stories about Margaret, Dotty, Henry, and the local musicians more than make up for that. Their stories are in turn funny and sad. The book makes me part of that small town family, smiling and crying along with them.

One word of warning. Do not read this book when hungry. I could practically smell the baked goods wafting through the book.

Comparisons have been drawn between this book and Kitchens of the Great Midwest. I don't see the similarity other than the fact that both are foodie books about female chefs. The structure and story take the two books in very different directions. Both books work but for very different reasons. Kitchens of the Great Midwest is about a woman's journey told in vignettes from different perspectives. The City Baker's Guide to Country Living is a woman and her choices captured at a moment in time.

This book works in its simplicity. It sets out to tell a story of home, family, and community with its laughter and tears, and it succeeds.

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

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The House Between Tides

Title:  The House Between Tides
Author:  Sarah Maine
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2016. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1501126911 / 978-1501126918

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 woman stood a moment on the old drive and stared up at the boarded windows, a silhouette against the grey walls, then she turned her back on the house and went down to the blaze on the foreshore."

Favorite Quote:  "Beauty might sustain the spirit, but it won't fill their bellies..."

A old, crumbling mansion on an island in the Hebrides. Locals with memories and grudges that go back generations. Ancestors and lords of manor known for their eccentricities. People who seemingly disappeared. A literal skeleton found not in the attic but under the floorboards.

Muirlan House is the house between tides, on a piece of land to which access depends on the tides. From the descriptions, the property sounds large at times and very small at times. Several locations on in and around the property are significant to the book, but unfortunately, I never quite get a picture of what this place looks like. I wish the book included a map or other layout of the Muirlan property and surrounding areas mentioned in the book. It would help my understanding and my enjoyment of the book.

The storyline itself covers two time periods. In 2010, Hetty returns to her ancestral home to make some decisions about the future. Her primary consideration is the development potential of the land. What she discovers is a local community with its own ties to the place and secrets buried for almost a century. She sets out to unravel the mysteries and to discover more. Almost a century earlier, Beatrice Blake comes to Muirlan House as Theo Blake's bride. Here, she discovers sides to her husband she never knew and the secrets he kept. She also discovers her own views and feelings. She discovers a world she never knew existed.

The story moves back and forth between the two time periods, each bit of the past revealing the story behind a discovery or a conversation of the present. Unfortunately, I find myself getting lost between the two time periods and all the characters in each period. Partly, that is because of the many relationships between the characters and the similarities of the names between the two times. Secondly, it is because of the abrupt shift between the chapters and even within the same chapter. The story shifts locations and perspectives sometimes without warning, making it challenging to follow.

The main focus of each time period is the two women - Hetty in 2010 and Beatrice a century earlier. Unfortunately, I find neither character particularly engaging. Both women seems to be at the mercy of their circumstances and the men in their lives; neither seems to proactive or a decision maker. I keep waiting for something more, but it never really comes. Another minor point. The book description states that "Hetty Deveraux leaves her strained marriage behind in London." However, nowhere in the book is that relationship clear. She and Giles do have a relationship, but it does not sound like a marriage throughout the book. It's not a big deal; it doesn't really impact the story much, but I do find it distracting.

The premise and the structure of the book does remind me of Kate Morton's books and Natasha Solomons' The Song of Hartgrove Hall. I love the atmospheric setting and the descriptions of the natural life found there; I just find myself less engaged in the actual story.

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

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Book That Matters Most

Title:  The Book That Matters Most
Author:  Ann Hood
Publication Information:  W. W. Norton & Company. 2016. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0393241653 / 978-0393241655

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

Opening Sentence:  "Ava saw it as soon as she turned the corner."

Favorite Quote:  "Could a writer understand how her book had saved someone long ago, when the world was a fragile, scary place and the people she loved weren't in it anymore? Could a writer understand that her book had mattered more than anything?"

The Book That Matters Most is less about books than I expected it to be. Ava's husband just left her for someone else. To add further injury, he chooses to live in the same neighborhood with his new significant other. Her son is off living his own life. Her daughter Maggie is in school in Italy. Ava is still enveloped in the sadness of her husband's betrayal and of losses from her childhood.

Her friend Cate is a librarian (YAY!) and convinces her to join a book club. The year's theme for the club is for each member to pick "the book that matters the most" to them. As a reader and a member of book clubs, I love that idea. I don't know that I could ever pick just one though. Different books have impacted me at different times in my life. "It mattered most to me then because of where I was in my life. So in a way, there isn't just one book that matters most, there might be several, or even a dozen." Fortunately, the right book has always found me when I needed it. I hope that always remains true.

In this book, the group's choices are as eclectic as the bookclub members themselves. Their discussions and reactions to the books are as diverse as their backgrounds. "When you read a book, and who you are when you read it, makes it matter or not." Sounds great so far, right? It sounds like an opportunity to read about books, to learn about characters by what they choose to read, and to relate to the idea that books can help us feel, express, and let go of our emotions, particularly sad ones. I can't wait to read more.

This book, however, gets complicated because it veers away from that main theme and introduces other perspectives. There's Maggie, Ava 's daughter who is off in Europe and in a crisis of anger, men, and drugs. There's Hank, the police detective who investigated Ava's sister's death and who has secrets of his own. There's the members of the book club, each with their own story and some with their own connections - old and new - to Ava. Of course, there's the ex-husband and his new significant other.

Then, the book gets even more complicated and really becomes about Ava's childhood, life, and family. The book she chooses for book club is a children's book that helped her survive the summer her sister died and the following year when she lost her mother. That grief is one Ava has never come to terms with.

The story becomes more about the mystery of the book, its author, and the mystery of what really happened in Ava's childhood. The big reveal, however, comes as no big surprise. Too many clues throughout the book point to that conclusion. Unfortunately, the reasons behind it are never truly explained, and the emotional reactions to it never expressed or dealt with. That ends the book on a note that feels incomplete.

I still love the basic premise of this book and wish the book had stuck closer to that.

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Fine Imitation

Title:  A Fine Imitation
Author:  Amber Brock
Publication Information:  Crown. 2016. 306 pages.
ISBN:  1101905115 / 978-1101905111

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

Opening Sentence:  "If she had to guess, Vera Longacre would say that most of the girls at Vassar College knew her name and could pick her out of a crowd, even if she could not do the same for them."

Favorite Quote:  "Art is ... it's like a window into someone's head. The only chance we have to really see the world through someone else's eyes. A glimpse of another time, another place. A taste of another life, in the past..."

Vera Bellington is a beautiful bird in a gilded cage. She always has been. She is part of the class of the wealthy that is the elite even within the wealthy. Vera plays the part well; she always has.

The book introduces the reader to Vera at two points in her life - the 1920s when she is married and living in the city and a decade earlier when she is a senior at Vassar. The book tells the story of both time periods in alternating chapters.

At Vassar, a college education is a placeholder waiting for the marriage proposal. In the present, Vera lunches with the ladies and serves on charity boards. She has a maid, a chauffeur, a butler, and others to take care of every practicality of life. She lives in a penthouse of a building her husband designed, built, and owns. Arthur and Vera Bellington are "that kind of rich," and Vera's parents, the Longacres, are even richer and have the old money name.

In the middle of all this opulence, Vera is desperately unhappy for her entire life is playing a role, with no self-determination. Her mother watches her every move, and Vera never veers far from the the line she is expected to toe. Her husband Arthur is consumed by his business and other interests; he, for the most part, ignores Vera except when necessary.

Then, at Vassar, Bea Stillman, an irreverent new friend, and the "Yale boys" enter the picture. In the present, artist Emil Hallan comes into Vera's life. A beautiful woman. A life of wealth. Constraints of family and society. A woman straining against the bars of her gilded cage. The introduction of characters who shake that solid foundation and the reliance on ritual and expectations. Can you see where this is going?

The plot of the book also involves the art world and the mystery surrounding the provenance of works. However, to me, that is a small piece of the book. The primary setting of the book is the lifestyle of the rich and famous in the roaring twenties. However, that opulent, vibrant setting also seems a small piece of this book.

This book is completely Vera's story, and it remains true to that narrow focus throughout. Therein lies the main issue with the book. Vera is the same whether as a married woman in the 1920s or a college student a decade earlier. She is still constrained by the need to adhere to societal rules and her mother's domineering edicts. Nothing changes. No growth seems to occur between the two time periods. Yes, society's rules are harsh, and the pressure to conform is immense. Yes, a mother's opinion and approval always matter. However, as a young woman grows and matures, you would expect some change in approach or behavior. I feel sorry for her up to a point, but after a while, I just find her frustrating as Vera in college and Vera as a married lady of society both sound the same.

Predictable? Yes. Entertaining and a quick read? Yes similar to The Light of Paris and The Atomic Weight of Love in that story line of a woman looking to live her own life despite what society or family may require.

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Absalom's Daughters

Title:  Absalom's Daughters
Author:  Suzanne Feldman
Publication Information:  Henry Holt & Co. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1627794530 / 978-1627794534

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

Opening Sentence:  "Cassie and Lil MA and Grandmother lived in a house at the far end of Negro Street in two rooms over the laundry that they ran in Heron-Neck."

Favorite Quote:  "People say all kinds of things .... You can't live your life by what comes out of ignorant mouths."

Cassie and Judith are teenagers. They are half-sisters. They have the same father but different mothers. Their mothers are of different races. Home is in rural Mississippi in the 1950s. Everyone knows Cassie and Judith are sisters; yet, the fact is at the same time unacknowledged.

The beginning chapters of the book paints a picture of life in rural Mississippi. Through the eyes of these young women, Cassie in particular, the reader sees the poverty and the tension and prejudice between the races. The matter of fact tone of the book points to the fact that a child born into this environment takes for granted the divisions and the struggle. That's just what life is.

The vision of a possible inheritance sets the two off on a journey north, to find their father and to claim their rightful portion of this supposed inheritance. Along the way, they meet many a character. Some help, and some hinder. Thrown in is a little bit of magic; it's unclear why, but it's in there.

In some ways, this book reminds me of another recent book Chasing the North Star. Both books are of young people coming North in the search of a better life. The time periods are different. The reasons for leaving are different. However, the journey and the tone of the books are similar. Unfortunately, both books seem to lack the intensity and the emotional impact that a story such as this could have. Here are two young women caught in a time and place of racial strife and extreme poverty. Here are two young women who basically run away from home. Here are two young, impressionable women at risk. Here are two sisters who for the first time have the opportunity to unite but who must make compromises to meet social norms. Here is a long journey with few resources. Here is a father who has abandoned both daughters. Yet, somehow, none of this emotional intensity comes through in the book. The premise is wonderful and promising, but the promise is not completely fulfilled.

Looking at the book a different way, this book is a coming-of-age story of two young women. One is chasing a dream. One is escaping the future set for her. Both face different issues because of their race and their family background. Even from this perspective, the book fails to capture me emotionally. The ending fast forwards and wraps up their stories in a neat little package. Again, the premise is wonderful and promising, but the promise is not completely fulfilled.

Note:  It was only after reading the book that I learn that the "Absalom" in the title is a reference to the William Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom! A little research reveals that William Faulkner's book is set during and after the Civil War is the story of a white man in the South. It is a commentary on the history of the South as this book sets out to be. William Faulkner's book also involves character who have the same father but different mothers. That is another similarity with this book even through the relationships are completely different. Unfortunately, I have not read William Faulkner's book so cannot fully appreciate or comment on the reference.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

something to food about

Title:  something to food about: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs
Author:  Questlove, Ben Greenman, Kyoko Hamada, Anthony Bourdain, 
Publication Information:  Clarkson Potter. 2016. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0553459422 / 978-0553459425

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

Opening Sentence:  "What is food for thought"

Favorite Quote:  "This project began as an exploration of food, but it ended as an exploration of creativity. Working with chefs, and trying to figure out how they do the things they do, helped me to see how my own creative process works. Creativity never stops."

Let me start with the first thing that reaches out to me about this book. I love the cover. I first saw it from far away and was intrigued by the portrait. From far away, I see the whole. As I step closer, I start to see the ingenuity of the individual pieces and the choices made to represents the parts of the human body. I see the food, but I also see the anatomical drawing of a medical textbook. Most of all, I see the creativity. This cover gives the statement "you are what you eat" a whole new meaning.

Next, I get to the tag line for the book. "Exploring creativity with innovative chefs." Food and cooking are definitely creative outlets for me. So, I am drawn in further, still unsure quite what to expect.

Then comes the introduction, both of the author and the subject. Ahmir Khalib Thompson, aka Questlove, is an American musician, producer, artist, journalist, author, and food lover. This book is the result of his love affair with food.

If you are looking for a cookbook, this is not the book for you. This is about conversations and ideas. The introduction sets very clear expectations on what this book is and what it isn't. It is about chefs who are "artists facing forward." It is "about the ideas behind the food." It is about "the creative process of these chefs illustrated through photography."

What follows are individual interviews with ten different chefs - Nathan Myhrvold, Daniel Humm, Michael Solomonov, Ludo Lefebvre, Dave Beran, Jesse Griffiths, Donald Link, Dominique Crenn, Daniel Patterson, and Ryan Roadhouse. The conversations are almost philosophical in nature with questions ranging from your ideal next employee to the portrayal of food in science fiction to the history of race as it relates to food. The conversations are all as unique as the chefs themselves. They leave me with two thoughts. One is a feeling as if I were there, present and sharing in the conversation. The second is that Questlove is a person I would love to talk to (as would many other people I am sure!), not for his celebrity but to have the kind of conversation portrayed in this book.

Part of what gives these conversations their warmth and depth are the photographs. The photography is very different from what I expect. Food photography, particularly cookbook photography, is all about the dish of food and presenting it in the most appetizing way possible. The photographs in this book are about the process and the ideas of food. Many capture the small details from a single ingredient to hands covered in a marinade to a few even of the people. The compositions and the colors make me stop and think.

This book falls into many different categories. It is a coffee table book; the cover and the photography are conversation starters. It is a journalistic book for it is a documentation of interviews. It is an academic book for it highlights the philosophy of both Questlove and these chefs. Ultimately, it is a foodlover's book, with photographs to salivate over, chefs whose work to aspire to, and food ideas to contemplate.

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

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Light of Paris

Title:  The Light of Paris
Author:  Eleanor Brown
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  039915891X / 978-0399158919

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

Opening Sentence:  "I didn't set out to lose myself."

Favorite Quote:  "... sometimes outright cruelty isn't necessary. Sometimes all it takes is a lifetime of disapproving glances, of disappointed sighs, of frustrated hopes."

1999. Madeleine comes from a Southern belle background and finds herself captive in a marriage based on business and on convenience rather than on love. She returns to her mother's home for a visit. In her mother's attic, she discovers her grandmother's journals. All she knows is that her grandmother was ... well ... her grandmother who died when Madeleine was one six. What she discovers is someone completely different - a woman with a story to tell and perhaps a lesson for Madeleine.

1919. Margaret does not fit the mold of the debutante circle and finds herself being pushed into a marriage because of her mother's fear that she may remain a spinster. She rebels. Her parent's response is to send her off on a European tour. Things don't go quite as planned, but Margaret finds herself in Paris, creating a life for herself and unwilling to go home. Margaret aka Margie becomes Marguerite.

The book goes back and forth between the stories of these two women as they struggle to find their own identity. Decades apart, the two women face somewhat the same issue. What role do family expectations and obligations play in our choices? If choices are based on those expectations, are they forced or are we still free to choose? How do you balance family expectations with your own dreams?

This book approaches this issue not only from Madeleine's and Margaret's perspective, but also from the perspective of some of the male characters in the book. The issue exists across genders and across time periods. That pull between the generations is a universal one; each character, however, finds their own unique path through it. It is this fact that gives the book its primary appeal. I find myself relating to these different pulls on our time, energy, and future, and perhaps, in one of the answers, seeing my own.

Mind you, this is a book about the wealthy. It's apparent in the fact that the answer to a young man or young woman wanting freedom in the 1920s is a European tour to play before coming home to settle down. In 1999, it's apparent in the fact that the decision to stay in or to leave a marriage becomes solely an emotional one without the added layer of financial survival. The emotional struggle is the same regardless of economics, but the economics certainly make the journey easier  for the characters but more difficult for the reader to relate to.

Of the two stories, I find Margaret's story the stronger one. Maybe, that is because of the time period. Maybe, it's because of the beautiful Paris setting. Maybe, it's Margaret herself. Of the two, she seems stronger. She strikes a more independent path, managing to create a life for herself. Maybe, it's because we know how Margaret's story ends. I find myself rushing through Madeleine's story to get back to Margaret.

Overall, though, the book is a quick and entertaining read, maybe even a beach read for the summer. It does, however, have enough substance to leave me reflecting on choices made and the paths not taken.

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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Monterey Bay

Title:  Monterey Bay
Author:  Lindsay Hatton
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1594206783 / 978-1594206788

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

Opening Sentence:  "When he' fifty years dead, she dreams she's gone back."

Favorite Quote:  "Oh, life is less about what one wants, I suppose, and more bout what one is willing to accept."

The Monterey Bay Aquarium opened on October 20, 1984. Its history reaches back to the early 1900s. With the rise of California's fishing industry came the rise of canneries. The first cannery opened in Monterey Bay in 1908. In 1916, a sardine cannery first opened in the location that is now the aquarium. World War I created a boom in the industry because of the demand for stable canned goods. Then came the Depression; this is the era that John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row published in 1945 immortalizes. In the aftermath of the War, the sardines disappeared from the Bay, and along with it the canning industry. The area fell into disrepair until the 1970s brought a revitalization to the area.

This is the history of Monterey Bay and the background of how the aquarium came to be. This is the setting for this book that "is set around the creation of the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium--and the last days of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row." However, this book is more about Cannery Row than the aquarium. It is also more about one young woman, Margot Fiske and the men in her life. It is also more fiction than history.

Despite the beautiful Monterey Bay setting with its blue skies and blue water, the book is very dark. Its environment seems dreary and depressing, which I suppose goes along with the end of Cannery Row but not with the new beginnings of the aquarium. I want to see the creatures of Monterey Bay and the beauty of the tide pools and the sea life. Even though one main character is a biologist and one illustrates these creatures, I find the beauty lost.

I also find it difficult to keep focus and to be engaged with any of the characters. The book features two main historical figures - John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, who is the basis for the character of Doc in Cannery Row. Unfortunately, since the book is more fiction than history and because of some of the unsavory relationships in the book, it's difficult to appreciate the history.

Then, there's fifteen year old Margot, the main character. The book introduces Margot in two time periods - 1940 when she is fifteen and decades later in 1998. The premise if that the events of 1940 have such far reaching impact that they forever alter the course of Margot's life and, even decades later, pull her back.

She comes across as a young woman who needs help. She has a challenging relationship with her father; the role of her father in her life is a frustrating one for he does not seem to see his own daughter. Her relationships with some of the men of Cannery Row are clearly inappropriate for a young woman. Her predilection for self-harm seems a call for help. Her artistic abilities are a gift; her use of the her gift for pornography is disturbing. She can be and should be a sympathetic character. However, throughout the book, I struggle to understand the "why" of her story - the reasons behind Margot's choices. The issue is that I never do, not even through the sections that portray Margot in 1998. I never truly understand Margot, and as a result, I never truly engage in the book.

At the end, unfortunately, the book does not give me a sense of Monterey Bay, the aquarium, or the historical figures of Cannery Row. It just leaves me disappointed with a sad and depressing story of a young woman who I don't understand or truly care about.

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

Thursday, July 7, 2016

I Wish My Teacher Knew

Title:  I Wish My Teacher Knew:  How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids
Author:  Kyle Schwartz
Publication Information:  De Capo Lifelong Books. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0738219142 / 978-0738219141

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

Opening Sentence:  "Doull Elementary is not much different from schools across America."

Favorite Quote:  "As educators, we are teaching more than subjects and concepts; we are teaching people."

"I Wish My Teacher Knew" is completely not the book I expected, in terms of structure, content, target audience, format. That may be the result of the book publicity and the ebook format. Either way, the publicity and format make an unfortunate combination.

The book descriptions states, "Schwartz’s book tells the story of #IWishMyTeacherKnew, including many students’ emotional and insightful responses, and ultimately provides an invaluable guide for teachers, parents, and communities."

#IWishMyTeacherKnew is a lesson Kyle Schwartz uses in her third grade classroom. It is a writing prompt that asks students to finish the sentence that begins with I wish my teacher knew. It is a lesson she shared in a tweet, and it is lesson that then went viral. Given the diversity of our population and the candor of children, I can image the responses ranging from laugh out loud funny to heartbreaking. In a book based on this lesson, I expect to see a large collection of these responses. The book does have some, but only a handful. The individual notes come as breaks between the sections of the book, and no more. The same ones also repeat from section to section (I wonder if this is an issue with the galley version I received?). The responses are not the focus of the book; they are a mere tangential launching point for the actual content of the book.

The content of the book is issues facing school age children that can hinder their ability to engage in school. Each section of the book speaks to an issue such as student mobility, poverty, abuse, and grief. Each section presents a summary of the issue, different causes, some research, and then some techniques teachers can use to mitigate the impact of that issue. The discussion appears an introductory, simplified look into these serious societal concerns. This book is the start of a conversation about these topics, not a culmination of results.

Warranted, I am clearly not the target audience for the book. This book is written by a teacher for other teachers. Perhaps, their reaction would differ. Since Kyle Schwartz's experience is in elementary school, the techniques she shares are suitable to an elementary environment. A middle and high school level teacher may get ideas but would have to modify the techniques to be more age appropriate for the students.

I typically don't include book format (paper, ebook, etc.) in my review, but in this case, the book format made a huge impact on readability of the book. The ebook version has a number of issues. First, the student responses are presented as images; unfortunately, the images are light grey on a white background. Some of them are almost impossible to read. In fact, I saw some blank cards throughout; I am not sure what I missed. Second, the same student responses repeat multiple times throughout the book; those responses are what I expected to see when I read this book, and I see only a few. Third, within the text, the book also includes some case studies of individual students. I imagine that they are meant to be set off from the main text as a text box or aside; unfortunately, in this version, they begin mid-sentence in the main text and then are intermingled with the main text over the next few pages. It took me a while to notice that the font color is slightly different; even then, it is confusing throughout. I received an ebook galley so I do hope the issues are resolved by the time the book is released.  Otherwise, I might suggest a print version.

Unfortunately, a confusing format and a misleading book description leads to an unfavorable reaction to this book. On the other hand, if the book impacts even one teacher's ability to teach one student, it will change a life for the better. And, for that, I wish it success.

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

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

To Swim Beneath the Earth

Title:  To Swim Beneath the Earth
Author:  Ginger Bensman
Publication Information:  Horn Rimmed Editions. 2015. 356 pages.
ISBN:  0996295704 / 978-0996295703

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's a long way from Denver to Bogota."

Favorite Quote:  "We all need to grieve sometimes, to come to terms with our losses. If only is dangerous, it has a ways of stealing from the present; it turns the past into poison."

Megan Kimsey is a young woman haunted by visions she cannot understand. Megan Kimsey is a young woman misunderstood by most who surround her. Megan Kimsey is a young woman who needs answers from the past to move on to her future.

Megan Kimsey's story has four main components. The first is her present life, where she sees visions but most of the family around her thinks she suffers from a psychological disorder. The second is a short period of time during Megan's teenage years. She witnesses a traumatic event - the death of a child she loves - and is haunted by that event. The third is Megan's search for answers and for a reason behind the visions she has seen all her life. The fourth is the past; Megan's answers are to be found in the heart of the ancient Inca civilization.

The beginning of the book sets up an entire dynamic for Megan's family. Megan was close to her father who passes away shockingly and suddenly. She has a strained relationship with her mother. Her siblings are on the periphery of these relationships, as is Dr. Vickers, Megan's doctor and her mother's friend. Megan has always had visions, but of her family, only one believes in her. The family dynamics are laid out but not really explored. I keep expecting the story to get back to Megan's present life, but it never does. Once Megan leaves Denver, her family leaves the picture except in a brief glimpse at the end of the book. Much is left undeveloped and unresolved.

The story of Megan's teenage years is perhaps the most implausible portion of the book. A well-loved, well cared for child freezes on a front porch, leaving Megan devastated. How does it happen? Why? The answer is never made clear except that it does happen. How it ties into Megan's story also becomes clear as the book goes on, but upon first reading, it is jarring.

Megan's search leads her to Colombia and Ecuador and a whole host of new characters. Historians, archaeologists, and doctors all play a part in Megan's story. They introduces variations of belief and disbelief, similar to what a reader may experience when reading Megan's story. The only misplaced aspect of this part of the story is that introduction of a romance. It is totally unnecessary; I would prefer the story of a strong young woman coming to terms with her entire life rather than one entering into a new relationship while on this journey of self-discovery.

The story of the past is the haunting one in this book. The descriptions of the place even in the present seems as if they are from a different time, separate and isolated from the rest of the world. The gradual revelations of the past are beautifully done and keep you guessing as to what happens next. I did guess the eventual resolution, but the shock of it still created an emotional reaction. I love books that can do that!

The book has an epilogue which moves forward and says what happens. In this case, I am so glad because I want to leave the book knowing what happens to Megan. I love a book that can make me care about a character like that!

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

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Rise of the Rocket Girls

Title:  Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
Author:  Nathalia Holt
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0316338923 / 978-0316338929

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

Opening Sentence:  "The young woman's heart was pounding."

Favorite Quote:  "The women watched the first steps on the moon with the same mixture of awe and wonder as millions of other Americans. Yet modestly, they didn't think about their own handiwork in making it happen. Instead, they were last in the magic of the moment, glued to the grainy images on their televisions, scarcely believing their own eyes."

The rocket girls is the name given to an elite group of women - scientists and mathematicians who have been and are part of the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) from the 1940s to today. The JPL began from the vision of students at CalTech in the 1930s. It is a research facility centered robotic space and earth science. This laboratory pioneering America's earth-orbiting satellites, interplanetary spacecraft, and robotic spacecraft to planets, asteroids, comets, and the moon.

Women joined the JPL team early in its history. They were the "computers" of the lab, as in they literally did the mathematical computations working with the engineers, who at that time were mostly male. Their role was unusual because this was a time and place in which the role of women was still primarily in the home, as wives, mothers, and homemakers. Their role in a serious scientific endeavor was even more unusual because these fields were strictly the realm of men. These women broke through the cultural norms of the times and became an indispensable part of America's space program.

The author has brought together a remarkable compilation of their untold stories. In several interviews, the author cites the difficulty of the research. The story of these women is largely undocumented. Pictures from the JPL archives includes these women, but names and contact point prove difficult to find because the record of their role was not kept. At the same time, finding one woman leads to many others as friendships and bonds formed that lasted through the years. Detailed research and countless interviews lead to this book.

What is delightful about this book is the role model this book identifies. These women excelled in STEM fields, broke through a male-dominated profession, and balanced home and work. All laudable goals for women even today. Through this book, this group collectively sets forth an example to be followed.

The book takes a survey approach, covering a lot of time, a lot of science, a lot of history, and a large number of women through its trajectory from the 1940s to today. What this approach does not to do is delve deeply into the story of one or a few of these women. After a while, it becomes difficult for me to distinguish between them. Rather, I take each as becoming, for that point in the story, the face of this group. The focus remains the process and the group, not the individual. Perhaps, that is the goal. Perhaps, that is because of the limited research material available. At times, this approach makes the book a challenge to get through.

The positive aspect of this approach is that it leaves the readers with a broad understanding of many aspects of this history - progress of space program, changing role of computational technology from a table size calculator to keypunch cards to supercomputers, changing cultural paradigms, and particularly the changing role of women. The book is an intriguing introduction to a fascinating history of "computers" for the computers are humans and not machines.

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