Friday, October 18, 2013

Perfect Halloween Reading

Heart-Shaped BoxHeart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I simply could not put this book down. I just kept wanting to read one more page, then one more, then one more. . . Then when I would finally put the book down in the wee hours of the morning, I would lay awake, staring into the darkness, wondering, "Did I just see something?"

Joe Hill's "Heart-Shaped Box" is a terrific ghost story, with the usual Joe Hill themes: music, cars, roads, broken families, and characters trying to be better. Pick this book up, you won't be disappointed.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Living Simply and Intentionally

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade LifeMade from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Made from Scratch” is a charming memoir of the author’s journey toward self-sufficiency. Jenna Woginrich reminds me a lot of myself. She is constantly trying to learn new skills and pick up new hobbies. Though I have no interest in sled dogs or sheep keeping, I found that her book had some wonderful stories full of warmth and discovery, and some excellent project suggestions and references.

This is a great primer for those who are just starting to think about getting some country skills. It is a fun and inspirational read, and it offers a lot of resources for people looking to get started. From baking your own bread or playing your own music, to raising fiber animals and back yard chickens, “Made from Scratch” has it covered. You will learn both from Woginrich’s victories and from her mistakes. Even if you don’t ever plan to do most of what is discussed in the book, the writing is so engaging that it is a pleasure to read.

I enjoyed this book and plan to pick up Woginrich’s other book, “Barnheart” as well.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On Inequality and Hope

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai UndercityBehind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Katherine Boo’s non-fiction work, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” is a gripping expose of life in one of India’s poorest slums. Annawadi is a slum that grew beside the expansive Mumbai International Airport complex. Boo’s story follows the lives of several Annawadi families as they churn through their own dramas and through the shockingly sad case of The One Leg.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” reads like a well-paced novel. Reminding myself that this isn’t just a story, that this is a true account of these real people’s lives, made the tale all the more horrifying and heart wrenching. Boo writes the characters beautifully and honestly. You feel like you really know these people who live in unimaginable squalor. Despite their social status, experiences, living conditions and work, most of them maintain an admirable hopefulness about the future. They struggle every day to bring themselves a speck closer to their goals.

I highly recommend this book. I couldn’t put it down, and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know these amazing Indians. Though the story isn’t a happy one, it is vital to the understanding of global inequality. Annawadi is a perfect example of the same wealth and poverty disparities seen in major U.S. cities, and large cities around the world. These people live across a busy road from some of the wealthiest residents and tourists of Mumbai. They are constantly gazing at the City’s most successful, but the gaze is not returned. The residents of Annawadi need you to know them. Their invisibility in Mumbai is a large part of their plight. The more people know and care what happens to them, the more opportunity will be afforded them.

So pick up the book and get to know Abdul, Sunil, Asha, and so many others. And don’t skip the Author’s Note at the end. Her goals and interests are not irrelevant to the story.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cooked: A Natural History of TransformationCooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read all of Michael Pollan’s previous books and have very much enjoyed them. I am a big foodie; I like to cook and experiment in the kitchen with fermentation, brewing, baking, etc. This book, “Cooked,” is right up my alley.

“Cooked” is divided into sections based on the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. In the Fire section, Pollan delves into the mysteries of real pit barbeque. He studies what makes barbeque delicious and how to do the perfect whole pig roast.

In the Water section he studies braises and “one pot” cooking. Pollan discusses the similarities between the world’s great cuisines and the universal basics of the “onion and garlic” recipe base. This section also gets into the science of what happens in a pot between the meat and cooking liquids.

The Air section was on baking. This section was the most interesting to me, because I am not an experienced baker. One of the shocking things revealed in this book is the genetic modification and selection of grains and the perils of flour processing. I had no idea that when I was buying “whole wheat” flour, it was nothing of the kind! This section actually changed my life. I have researched and discovered a great, organic, non-GMO, stone ground whole wheat flour mill. I now order this four by the 25 lb. bag and make loves of delicious whole wheat sour dough bread ever week.

The last section was on earth and discussed fermentation and brewing because these arts are 100% dependent on the microbes that inhabit the earth. I am what Pollan refers to as a “fermento”. I have taken classes on fermentation, studied Sandor Katz’s books, and always have something percolating on my kitchen counter. So, much of this section was old news to me, but definitely would be interesting and useful to someone interested in making their own lacto-fermented pickles or sauerkraut. He also experiments with making his own beer, but since I brew my own beer, cider and mead, this was really just an overview of things I already knew.

To conclude, “Cooked” was a very enjoyable romp through homemade food. Pollan writes personably and you feel as if you are on the odyssey with him. Even if you are pretty accomplished in the kitchen, this book is sure to open you up to a few new ideas and challenges. So get “Cooked” and get in the kitchen!

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Friday, August 23, 2013

The Untold Story of True American Heroines

The Astronaut Wives Club: A True StoryThe Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story by Lily Koppel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this story about the Astronaut wives, though it did end up making me sad. These women were amazing. They were so focused and dedicated to supporting their husbands’ careers. Everything they did was with consideration to how it would affect their husbands. From the early years as the wives of military test pilots to the glory of the Apollo moon landing, these woman did everything in their power to help their men succeed.

Unfortunately, their service and devotion was not reciprocated. These heroes of American history lived the lives of rock stars, not family men. They blatantly kept “Cape Cookies” on the side, abandoned their families, and took all of the sacrifices of their wives completely for granted. Even knowing that NASA valued strong families, and that a healthy marriage was a strong indicator of astronaut success, it was left almost entirely up to the wives to keep up the fa├žade. They had to pretend that they didn't know what their husbands were up to in Cape Canaveral. They had to be stoic and supportive to the bitter end.

With such a lifestyle, is it any wonder that the wives only had each other to commiserate with? Though there was a lot of competition between the couples for prime space missions, the wives became a close knit community unto their own. I was happy to hear that they still had regular get-togethers even today.

“The Astronaut Wives Club” is a wonderful overview of these true American heroines. Their story has largely gone unsung, but Lily Koppel has done a good job of introducing us to most of them. There were a lot of wives by the end of the Apollo missions, and it was sometimes difficult to keep them all straight in my mind. I think that I would like to read more in-depth memoirs on some of the women introduced in this book. They just had such interesting personalities and lived through such unique circumstances, it is hard to believe that this is the first book ever written about them.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in women’s history, the space race, or American history. It was a fascinating read that I think everyone would enjoy.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Life After DeathLife After Death by Damien Echols
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been following the story of the West Memphis Three since the beginning. I was a teenager during the mid-90s Satanism scare, and I remember clearly when Damien Echols became the wide-eyed face that symbolized it. He looked like my friends and I never could believe he was guilty.

After watching the Paradise Lost trilogy on HBO I was certain he wasn't guilty and couldn't believe that he remained on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Now that I have read his memoir, “Life After Death” I am in awe of the railroading of his case.

I didn't have high expectations for a memoir written by an (unwilling) high school drop-out, but Echols totally delivered. His writing is lyrical, honest and very evocative. He describes the grinding poverty in which he grew up in such stark detail that I felt like I was experiencing it myself.

As his story comes closer and closer to his arrest it becomes clear that Echols was a victim of zealous, perhaps even mentally disturbed police and a corrupt court system. He was harassed for years by the police, incarcerated and even placed in a mental institution with little to no grounds. His arrest on the Robin Hood Hill murders seemed almost inevitable – like the police had been cultivating him as a suspect. And his family were so ignorant and complacent, that they did nothing to defend him or protect him from the harassment.

His journals from his years in prison are heartbreaking. Echols leans heavily on spirituality, mysticism and meditation. Given no other option, he retreats deep into his own psyche. Much of his journal entries are filled with his struggle to attain deeper and deeper meditative states.

The other major theme from his prison journals was about his wife, Lorri. Echols is deeply in love with her, and keeping their relationship healthy was a great focus of life while he was incarcerated. He praises her for all of her tireless work on his case, and credits her for giving him a reason to keep on living while he was hopeless on death row.

“Life After Death” is a terrific memoir. It leads the reader through the perils of poverty in the Deep South, teenage angst, the terrors and helplessness of the justice system, and the absolute gray numbness of prison. If you are looking for an incredible story, Echols has one that is an absolute page-turner.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Twinkies Are Oil! Oil!

Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America EatsTwinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America Eats by Steve Ettlinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Twinkie, Deconstructed” is a book with one, horrifying central theme: all the ingredients in a Twinkie have a single source – petroleum. The book became painfully repetitive as it described how once again, the ingredient was made from fossil fuels. Over and over again this book describes processes of heat and extraction that result in the production of the chemically-laden “food” that makes a Twinkie.

I had expected the ingredients in Twinkies to be a chemical horror, but what really brings this book home is how Ettlinger breaks down the ingredients and shows the reader how some of these ingredients are used in the home. Ever use baking powder or bleached all-purpose flour? Then you too have a cupboard full of highly processed foods. The process for imitation vanilla is amazing.

Though I have not had a Twinkie in thirty years, this book made me think about all of the other foods that I eat that have similar ingredient lists. These petroleum-based ingredients can be found in practically any processed food you might encounter – everything from pasta sauces to lunch meats.

I gave this book thee stars because I did find the format repetitive, though that is not entirely the fault of the author. And the repetition did serve to drive home what is really in our food. I also had just finished the book “Salt, Sugar, Fat” which does a better job of writing about a similar thing. I felt that Ettlinger did not press his sources enough regarding the health and safety of the ingredients he was researching. That being said, “Twinkie, Deconstructed” was a real eye-opener. If you are interested in the chemistry of food, or food origins, this will be a great read for you.

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