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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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sex and Science Made Hilarious

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is there any subject that Mary Roach can't make fascinating and humorous? I don't want to write any spoilers about the book, but I will say that she deftly examines the work of Kinsey, Masters and Johnsons, and numerous other current day sex researchers and physicians. If you ever wondered about pheromones, libido, attraction, physiological aspects of sex, sexual dysfunctions or sexual norms throughout the ages, then this book is for you. Roach’s footnotes alone are worth the cover price. Well researched, insightful, and very very funny. I highly recommend it.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Problems with Processed Foods

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked UsSalt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Salt Sugar Fat” has ruined grocery shopping for me. I’ve never been a fan of highly processed foods. I am not one to throw Kraft Cheesy Skillets, or Lunchables into my grocery cart. I know that processed foods are bad for you and full of empty calories. But this book took that point of view and radically expanded it.

So much of what we think of as “food” contains little to no actual food! And it is a worse problem than just obesity. These “foods” contribute to high blood pressure, organ failure, heart failure, altered taste buds, and even cancer! Manufacturers of these products know their dangers and don’t eat them. I wouldn’t eat a meal at a fancy restaurant that the chef wouldn’t touch, so why would I eat a meal in a box that the CEO of Kraft wouldn’t touch?

“Salt Sugar Fat” is broken up into three sections that address each ingredient’s role in processed foods. First is Sugar, and this section is a real eye opener. We all know about the sugars involved in sodas, but what was really frightening to me was the secret sugars that are added into all manner of foods in order to mask other chemical “off” flavors. This is the section that first introduces the concept of the “Bliss Point”. According to Moss’ research, people’s bliss points for sugar are higher and higher due to early exposure to high sugar foods in infancy. If you grew up drinking soda and other sweet drinks, you are doomed to crave higher and higher sugar contents in your foods for the rest of your life.

The Salt section has similar information to the sugar section. People are developing higher and higher tolerances to salts in their foods. Even children, who normally don’t like a lot of salt, are being trained by processed foods to crave it. Again, salt is added to EVERYTHING. It provides better mouth feel for a lot of products, preserves products, and masks metallic and other off flavors.

I was ready to be hit hard by the fat section, and I was not let down. Fats are not going away from processed foods. Fat is essential to their success. Moss’ research shows that when salt and sugar are combined with fats, our brains/bodies do not identify how much fat we are ingesting. Basically, the key components of processed foods work together to turn off our natural satiety. That’s terrible news for the consumer, but great news for processed food manufacturers.

Don’t read this book if you aren’t prepared to go to the grocery store armed with your new found information on processed food. You will be checking the labels on everything and evaluating and translating the information therein. Nothing is as it first appears. “Low Fat” or “Diet” varieties often harbor secret stashes of extra salt or sugar that keep the calories ridiculously high. But if you are ready for some hard truths that might just save your life, get this book today.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Organic Gardening in Florida Requires Specialized Knowledge

Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in FloridaOrganic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida by Ginny Stibolt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Florida offers gardeners unique challenges and benefits that are not generally addressed in most gardening publications. I find myself always doing a little mental math when I read about when and how to start seeds. I live in North Florida (zone 9B), and I pretty much have to plant spring crops (like English Peas) in the winter. It’s April right now, and our high temp today is 91 degrees Fahrenheit. All of my greens began bolting in February, and my window for growing cool/cold weather crops is almost too small to get anything grown to maturity. And this is in North Florida! My friends in South Florida can forget about growing a lot of common crops entirely!

I’ve been gardening for about 4 years now, and I really wish that I had discovered this book when I first started. It would have given me a great start; instead I had to learn things the hard way. Four years into it, I’ve figured a lot of the info in this book out already. It has some great information on different organic gardening methods, composting, and bed building. However, I’ve read more detailed information on these topics in other books dedicated to them.

What “Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida” gets right is its focus on Florida specific gardening challenges. The book recognizes that Florida is unique in that there are many different growing zones in the state, and what works in North Florida will not necessarily work in Central or South Florida. It also addresses Florida’s poor soils and what can be done to amend them.

There is a large section of the book that describes Florida tolerant crops and where they grow best in the state. This section is worth the total price of the book. It is a fantastic reference for anyone gardening in the state. I can look up parsnips or peas and find out how well they grow in each section of the state, when to plant them, and how to care for them.

Though I had already read or experienced a lot of the information provided in this book, the vegetable references have earned it a place in my personal library. If you garden in Florida, this book will have valuable information for you, even if you are a skilled and experienced gardener.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Get Ready to Garden

Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding! by Patricia Lanza
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found Patricia Lanza’s “Lasagna Gardening” to be highly inspirational. This is a gardening method that anyone can try. It is basically sheet composting inside of a garden bed, but instead of waiting for the compost to be fully processed, you can plant inside a lasagna garden as soon as it is built.

One of the keys to lasagna gardening is using the organic materials that you have on hand. I have a lot of oak leaves, grass clippings and garden waste on hand, so that is what I will be using to build my lasagna beds. Though the oak leaves can make the soil highly acidic, I’ll temper that with a dusting of wood ash that I saved from my winter fires.

There are only two things that I found as drawbacks to this book. The first is Lanza’s dependence on using large quantities of Sphagnum moss. This is a product that takes hundreds of years to grow back, so it is practically unsustainable. I do not want to use Sphagnum in my gardens at all. I am going to find an alternative to the moss that is a renewable resource. I am considering using a combination of Spanish moss (which I have tons of in my yard) and coconut coir. I’ve used the coir in the past as part of a potting mix. It holds water similarly to the Sphagnum moss and it is highly renewable, so I think that’s a good alternative.

The second is her recommendation of hybrid plants. I don’t have a moral argument against using hybrids, but you can’t save seed from hybrid plants, so you can’t build a series of garden plants that are adapted perfectly to your garden if you are using hybrids. It’s a small complaint, but I would have appreciated more recommendations of heirloom varieties.

Other than that, this book is very thorough. Whether you want to grow vegetables, herbs, flowers, or even start a container garden, Lanza has you covered in this book. She lays out the simple steps to building a lasagna garden bed, and then goes into how to care for different kinds of plants in the new bed(s). The method is so simple and low-cost, you will want to start a new bed right away. Regardless of which zone you live in, or what you want to grow, get Patricia Lanza’s “Lasagna Gardening” book. It will educate and inspire you.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Composting: Not Just for Kitchen Scraps Anymore

The Complete Compost Gardening GuideThe Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the only book on composting you will ever need. It discusses many different composting methods, style, and tools, and it ends on uses, cover crops, and green mulching. It uses the real, personal experiences of the authors, fantastic step-by-step photos and diagrams, and some great recipes and info graphics.

I got a lot of new ideas and plans from this book, and I can't wait to get started on my new composting projects. I checked this book out of the library, but it is such a fantastic resource, that I will soon be purchasing my own copy.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Kingsolver Gives Us Wings

Flight BehaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I charged through this book. It was strange, because I wouldn't say it was action packed, but the characters were so engaging and the plight of the butterflies so tenuous that I couldn't put it down. Kingsolver rarely fails me, and this is another triumph. Wonderful read, you should get it here:

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The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World HistoryThe Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History by Linda Colley
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this book because the life of Elizabeth Marsh sounded profoundly liberated and interesting, regardless of the time period in which she lived. She was a woman who had many adventures, traveled the world, flaunted conventions, and wrote about it. What's not to find interesting? How about this book, for a start?

I was under the impression that this book was Elizabeth's story, based largely on her own words. I read over 100 pages before I came upon anything substantial about Elizabeth herself. For a book about someone who should be a feminist icon, it concentrates heavily on the men around her. If you would like to know a lot about the life and business dealings of James Crisp, then this is the book for you. One of the reasons we know anything at all about Elizabeth Marsh is that she wrote books and diaries about her life and travels. Yet the meager sprinklings of quotation from these works were so light as to not be worth much at all. I wanted to hear what Elizabeth thought about things, not what author, Lind Colley thought about Marsh.

But editorializing seems to be Colley's objective in this book. She plucks this idea that Elizabeth Marsh's mother may not have been purely Caucasian from seeming thin air. No where does she provide proof of such an assertion, but because the woman grew up in the islands, she must be part African. Over and over again in this book, Colley bizarrely repeats the myth of Marsh's mother's lineage, as if it has any bearing on Elizabeth's world view. It happened so many times it became glaring and made me wonder what Colley's true agenda was.

I did not enjoy this book at all. In fact, it frustrated me to no end. But that isn’t Elizabeth Marsh’s fault. I don’t know how Colley managed to take such a fascinating, exciting life story, and turn it into such a mundane, boring, exposition on British business and politics. This book was a severe disappointment. I am just glad that Marsh isn’t around to read it.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Local Food Heals Communities

Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We EatReclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat by Tanya Cobb Denckla
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

#Food #UrbanFarming #CommunityGardens #LocalFood

“Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat” by Tanya Cobb Denckla (@ReclaimingOurFood) is a textbook for anyone who wants to create social and community change through food. This is so much more than just a book about how to start a community garden, though if that is something you want to do, GO GET THIS BOOK! It’s a must read for anyone that wants to start a community garden or urban farm.

I am not looking to start a community garden or build an urban farm any time soon, but I am interested in how community gardens and the like affect the community. This book is full of examples of the restorative power that gardens and fresh food have on a community. It is amazing how something so small as a raised garden bed can transform the people that eat from it. From preserving cultural growing conditions and traditions, to healing superfund sites with raised beds, this book describes how to succeed. It covers everything from the practical details of starting a community garden, to how to build a permaculture farm. If you have ever wanted to start something green in your community but didn’t know where to start, this is the book for you. And if, like me, you are interested in the phenomenon of feeding communities more locally and sustainably, this book will open your eyes to far more possibilities than you knew were available. Furthermore, there is an excellent resources section in the back of the book to get you started on your project.

I recommend this book to anyone who has any interest at all in local food. Even if you have no desire to start your own urban farm or community garden, you will get tons of useful information and inspiration from this book. It will definitely give you hope for the future.

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Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex CouplesOutlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples by Rodger Streitmatter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

#bookreview #nonfiction #history

“Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples” by Rodger Streitmatter caught my eye because it offered insight into the private life of Gertrude Stein, whom I have always been interested in. But this book is a whole lot more than just a few literary lives. It spotlights couples that were instrumental in social change, education, art, interior decorating, journalism, and a whole lot more. Aside from their outlaw marriages, the couples in this book are simply fascinating. I really enjoyed reading about how these people developed and became leaders in their fields.

Sadly, the partnerships that helped to create these amazing careers have gone unsung until now. A central theme to this book was that it took both members of the partnership to create amazing lives. Over and over again the book details how each partner encouraged, inspired, and enabled the other to accomplish great things. Truly, we all build our lives with the help of our friends, lovers, and families, and this book brings that lesson home.

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