November 30, 2012

Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

I'm not sure how this book got into my personal library.  But there it was, and I felt the need to read it, as I feel about all the books on my shelves.  It was ok, but I can definitely tell that this was not something I would have picked out for myself.

A young boy grows up in Ireland.  At this time there is much talk about informers and war and other things that are a family secret.  A secret he is determined to figure out although it will take him years and he'll only get it in snippets.  With a mother who is a little bit crazy he also has a troubled homelife as well.  But really, the essence of this book is what life was like in Ireland in the 1940's and beyond.  It shows one boy's childhood amidst the troubling time.

Our narrator is ok.  He speaks a little old for his age but he's also supposed to be quite smart, so that is forgivable.  He really wants to know secrets and has that childlike curiosity that makes you feel as if he is a worthy character.  His poor mother, I just found her a bit odd and crazy and couldn't really understand her.  I got the impression that she was supposed to be normal at least part of the time, but I never really felt that way about her.  And his father, while silent and strong, isn't given as much time in this book and I thought that he could have really been an important character and used much better.  There are several brothers and sisters as well, but they also only play minor roles.

The plot had a definite theme, rooting out the family secret.  But it was quite broken up into chunks of months or years, with no real set timeline or consistency.  It made it hard to really absorb yourself in the book because you were reading one story when you were immediately thrown into the next.  That being said, the actual language of the book was terrific.  Very descriptive and almost poetic really.  I liked the tone it set.  And there are some hard themes in this book.  It talks a little bit about war and execution and dark secrets.  Nothing is greatly described in detail, but it is implied.

This was just a hard book for me to really sink in to and appreciate.  I can't say that I'd seek other books out by Deane, but if they magically appear on my bookshelf again I'll probably read them.

Reading in the Dark
Copyright 1996
246 pages


November 26, 2012

The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society by Darien Gee

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine program**

I absolutely loved Gee's first book, Friendship Bread. So I eagerly delved into The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society, and it was very good as well. Something about Gee's writing is just so approachable and it makes you sink into the book.

This book kind of leaves off where Friendship Bread ended. But the good news is that you don't really need to have read the first book to read this one. It can stand on its own. It details the lives of several women, who have one common thread in that they are all part of a scrapbooking society in town. A society put together by the odd, but well meaning Bettie, who has a few issues of her own. All of them have things that are troubling them, but they grow and learn in the book and discover how important community really is.

There are a lot of characters in this book. So much so that my only complaint would be that it is hard to keep track of them and their particular storylines at times. There would be moments where I would have to flip back through the book just to make sure I had who was doing what right. But aside for that each of their stories were compelling. I especially felt drawn to the character Yvonne. She was a strong woman and made a better life for herself after removing herself from a toxic family. She has her troubles, but she gets through them and does it cheerfully. Isabel I didn't like as much, while she has an open heart she seemed whiny to me and a bit all over the place. And Bettie, she is so endearing even while she is being annoying. It's hard not to like her. There are many many more characters of course, but those are the ones that stand out the most.

I like how all the characters did different things in this book. Yvonne was just trying to get by with her plumbing business. Bettie was having the mental issues. Connie was struggling to find herself. They all had real life problems and went about solving them the best they could, even if sometimes that wasn't the best route they could have taken. It made them real. While some of the plot-lines were a little unbelievable (I just can't picture Isabel's really happening) most of them stayed true to real life and I think that is why this book is so easy to connect to. Not to mention its a feel good type of book and you can't help but smile as you're reading it. Light-hearted and I couldn't find anything offensive in it.

A very nice book by Gee. While it might not be quite up to the standard of her first, I think it does present a good story and relatable characters.

The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society
Copyright 2013
426 pages including recipes and scrapbooking tips

November 25, 2012

Save the Deli by David Sax

If it's about food, I'm probably going to read it. And while I'm not exactly a connoisseur of deli (although I do love me some pastrami), I thought reading about the deli would be interesting. And I was right, Sax leads us on quite the adventure in search of the remaining deli's in the world.

Sax has a mission. Save the Deli, or so the title of his book says. In reality, this book is an exploration of the delis that are left in the world. It is divided into three parts: New York, the rest of the USA, and the World. In each section he explores the delis available, gives his opinions on them, and lists out the types of food they have and whether or not they are authentic. He also talks about the types of people that run a deli, to the lifers to those who are just wanting to make a quick buck and franchise. Throughout the whole book, there is Jewish history, customs, and culture explored as well.

Sax doesn't pull any punches. If he thinks a deli is crap when he visits it, he says so. But he is also lavish in his praise for those he thinks gets it right too. In fact, he even acknowledges that he's going to make people mad when he says that New York is not the deli capital of the world, that there are better in Los Angeles and Montreal. And seeing as how New York prides itself on its delis, that's really saying something. Of course, it is just his opinion, although he seems to be well versed in deli lore. I mean the man eats tongue everywhere he goes which is just plain odd (and not something I ever think of when I think of the deli).

The whole point of this book is to point out that delis are dying around the world. People are looking for other things and cured meats are falling by the wayside. As are gefilte fish, matzo balls, and other things. And how can this be? Sax explains it as different tastes for today's Jewish youths, health reasons (most of this food can be artery clogging) and deli not being done right so that it's tasteless. The way he describes pastrami in this book makes me think that I've probably never had a good authentic one. And if I like the type I can get out of the case at Kroger, what on earth would I think of the actual stuff? I probably would have to set a tent up in front of the front door of that deli and eat there every day. Sax does do a wonderful job of describing the food. Even the tongue that sounds unappealing to me he manages to make sound delicious and decadent. Enough that if I were offered a free sample I would probably take it. And I do like that he talked about the people of the deli, the so called Deli Men who made it their whole life and did it right, carving the meat against the grain. And even the history and culture of Jewish people was appreciated as aside from what everyone knows about the Holocaust, I haven't really learned much about the culture. And to make the book even better, there's a listing of what the different foods are and the different deli locations in the back.

I different kind of food book. It was part travel, part history, part commentary, and all about one man's love for the deli. His obsession made for a great book and he researched it well. I know that based on this book, a trip to Zingerman's is probably in my future.

Save the Deli
Copyright 2009
288 pages

November 18, 2012

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu

Alas, I misjudged a book by its cover. I thought the cover was so beautiful that surely the book inside would be spectacular. Instead, I only felt luke-warm to it, and even a little disappointed.

Li-Jing, after having been in an accident, has aphasia. But his aphasia is special, it has rendered his speaking of Chinese completely useless, and instead, only the limited English he learned as a child is his only means of communication. With a stoic wife and young son, things become rough on his family as he struggles to communicate. So Dr. Neal is brought in and he can finally feel at ease with someone he can communicate with. A specialist in aphasia, she is there to try to help him regain his lost language.

I couldn't really find any of these characters compelling. They were all kind of selfish and superficial. I know the author was probably trying to show the difference is culture, but surprisingly I found all the characters the same. They put themselves first. Sure Meiling is taking care of her family in the best way that she knows how, but she doesn't even try to show some warmth or understanding of her husband's predicament. Li-Jing, while struggling with his language issues is certainly somewhat sympathetic in that regard, but otherwise as a person I found him lazy and insincere. And Dr. Neal, I don't even know where to start with her. She was the typical not so great American that seems to screw things up. I'm not insulted by this portrayal of Americans, even though several others in the book were not so kindly describe either, but rather saddened that this is the image of us.

The plot was kind of slow moving. I was intrigued by the language aspects of the book and the presentation of the aphasia, but since this book was more about its characters than that, my curiosity wasn't entirely satisfied. I can't say I enjoyed the interactions between the characters, they were somewhat painful to watch unfold. But in a way they were brilliantly written as someone describing some non-perfect people with drama in their lives. I could certainly envision this scenario playing out in real life to some extent. I just couldn't get myself fully immersed in the book though to really take anything from it.

This book just wasn't for me. Someone who likes characters (but not necessarily development towards bettering themselves) might enjoy it a bit better than I did. I won't avoid Xu's books from this point on, but I won't make a habit of seeking them out either.

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
Copyright 2010
340 pages

November 15, 2012

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

Ok, so first off I'm going to admit that I absolutely loved the movie "Interview with the Vampire".  And not just because it had some wonderful actors in it.  The story gripped me and I felt for the characters.  So now I've finally read the book, and I have to say I'm a little disappointed.  It wasn't nearly as enchanting as the movie and while it was still decent writing, I could take it or leave it.  And this is the first book in a series, even though it could be read as a stand-alone quite easily.

We are introduced to Louis very early in the book, he is after all the main character.  And he is telling his story to a reporter.  You see, Louis has had an eventful life.  Sort of.  Louis is a vampire and he tells his tale from when he was first changed to the years after with Lestat,the vampire who changed him, and with Claudia, the child vampire he inadvertently creates.  When Claudia and Louis leave for Paris they are hoping to find out more about vampires in general, but find out that ignorance could be very dangerous for them.

Louis is our main character.  And he is very deeply described and all his motivations shown to us.  Despite this though I couldn't connect with him in the book like I could the movie.  In fact, he was downright whiny in the book.  Lestat on the other hand we were supposed to not like but I actually rather enjoyed his character.  He was shallow, manipulative, and deeply flawed, but there was something about him that grabbed your attention.  Claudia too was a bit of an enigma.  She is a young vampire, and her mind ages while her body doesn't and that makes her situation very unique.  They really were the main characters of the novel, and there were some other much-described characters in this book, but they were only there to support Louis' story.

There is a lot of description in this book.  So much so that it becomes bogged down and boring some times.  There's only so much you can listen to Louis complain before you start feeling melancholy yourself.  And that's really not a good state of mind to have when you're supposed to be reading a book for enjoyment.  But when Louis isn't moaning and groaning the book is rich with detail and the plot-line very interesting.  Rice really did the vampire world a favor compared to the books of late and made them real but relatable at the same time.  You could picture Louis out roaming the streets in real life, the story just seems plausible in that fantasy-like way.  And some of that detail does involve violence, this probably isn't the best choice of a novel for a young child, but I wouldn't hesitate to give it to a mature teenager.  They could probably handle it.

An ok book, the movie will be nearer and dearer to my heart, but it did spark an interest to read the rest of the series.  Now I just have to get my hands on the next book.

Interview with the Vampire
Copyright 1976
342 pages

November 11, 2012

The Longest Race by Ed Ayres

**This book is part of the Amazon Vine program**

I've been trying to turn myself into a runner. I like the idea of running; the fitness, the goal of crossing the finish line, there really isn't anything bad about running. But it's very hard for me to get motivated as my mind tends to wander and I get bored while running. So knowing that this was a book written by an ultra-marathoner, I figured that he would have some good tips in here for helping that, considering he runs for fifty miles straight.

And while this book does have a few tips (located in the back) it's actually more a story about Ayres journey and his thoughts on the world. The book takes place in 2001 and the running of the JFK Ultra-marathon, a fifty mile race through the Appalachia trail and surrounding areas. Ayres is competing at sixty years of age and he breaks down the race into several chapters. Through these chapters there is a different theme at each section being that of thinking of wars past, thinking of the ecological future, how running derives from the activities of primitive man, and so forth. It's actually almost a stream of consciousness type of writing except that it isn't as choppy and random as those seem to be. But it does have that quality of the topic being all over the place. But the main constant is his running and what he does to run the way that he does. He talks about breathing, metabolism, and other things about running that I actually found very helpful.

Since this is Ayres thoughts we are mostly focused on his experiences and him in this book. And that's not a bad thing, you could almost call this an auto-biography of sorts. He may go on about other topics but the undercurrent is that he is running this race as a sixty year old, and that's really impressive. He doesn't go so much into his faults per say, but he does share his mistakes and how he's improved them in running. Like diet while on races, he shares what works and didn't work for him while running these ultra-marathons. You will learn that Ayres is a Quaker and deeply involved with wanting to improve the world's policies on taking care of resources. And if that's not your thing than you might not want to read Ayres book, because he is only telling it from his side.

I really enjoyed the running parts of this book. Sure the other parts were interesting but they distracted me when I just wanted to read about the running. I almost would have liked to have seen two books and I probably would have read both of them. I just found myself hurrying to get past the history lessons and scientific explanations to find out more about Ayres' run, which really intrigued me. Not that the history and science weren't good themselves, they just weren't what I wanted to read while reading about running. But despite that the book is still ok; it's one that I would probably re-read and maybe read at different times with different focuses on the book. Maybe look at only the running sections one day and the science the next. I do know I'll go back to the tips at the back at some point because they seem very useful.

I won't be running any ultra-marathons anytime soon; it's all I can do to finish a 5k in a respectable time. But you never know what the future will bring. My curiosity has been piqued by this book, and that's always a good thing.

The Longest Race
Copyright 2012
232 pages

November 05, 2012

The Dalai Lama's Cat by David Michie

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine program**

I have to say I absolutely adored this book.  It was cute, informative, and really opened by eyes to Buddhism and some of its aspects, even if that wasn't its main intent.  I've been wanting to learn more about Buddhism anyway, and without meaning to, choosing this book to read helped with that.

The Dalai Lama's cat focuses around HHC (His Holiness' Cat)and her journey toward enlightenment while being near the Dalai Lama.  Found as a stray on the street and being a particularly weak one at that, she is nursed back to help by the Dalai Lama himself and his assistants.  As she stays with him and becomes his pet, she watches different people enter his life and seek learning and learns a few lessons herself.  While doing so, she finds peace with her faults and learns to be a better cat.  And really, this description is simplistic of the whole story itself, but I find it hard to describe it without giving away the pleasure of reading that I had myself.

HHC is a pretty funny cat.  She has her flaws but wants to be better, and I think that reflects on many people as well, so you can identify with her even if she is a cat.  She parallels things in her own life with that of the problems of the staff and visitors to the Dalai Lama's home and by endearing herself to us, she also makes it easier to relate to these people as well.  And those other people are interesting in their own right.  Franc, an owner of a cafe nearby is pretty ego-centric but you get to watch him grow through the book.  Other characters may only appear for a chapter, but you learn as well for them, like the cook with anger issues, who had to take a look at why she was angry and what she herself could do to improve it, rather than wanting others to change what they would be doing.  And just as a side note, I do appreciate that some of the Dalai Lama's helpers were named after the fourteenth Dalai Lama, it added some real life relevance.

While this story is about a cat, HHC, it is so much more than that.  I learned more about Buddhist beliefs than from anything else I've ever read (which is admittedly not that much), but it was such an approachable way of learning that I really enjoyed it.  Each point was made with a story and what a person was doing to improve their lives rather than just giving the lessons by rote.  And it made it easier to remember.  I did enjoy the snippets about HHC though and how she too tried to learn.  While being just your ordinary cat that loves food and has an insatiable curiosity, she just had a spark that made her very special and very capable of being the cat of the Dalai Lama.  Indeed, if the Dalai Lama were to possess a cat, I'd imagine it to be very like HHC.  AS you would suspect there is some mention of Buddhism in this book (and I've already mentioned it myself) if you don't enjoy reading about other ways of belief than your own, this is probably not a book you'd enjoy.  But if you're curious about Buddhism and just like a good story, this is probably a good choice.

I definitely found the book an enjoyable read and will probably look at other books by this author.  He has an approachable reading style and a way of imparting knowledge without forcing it down your throat.  I very much liked The Dalai Lama's Cat.

The Dalai Lama's Cat
Copyright 2012
216 pages

November 03, 2012

Taste of Home Baking Book

This review is from the Amazon Vine Program.

**I have made 19 of the recipes in this book**

Alright, I've sat on this book for a year without reviewing it. And why is that? Because I tell myself I have to make a certain number of recipes before I can review a cookbook, and since I'm a single person, I can't make something every day or I wouldn't fit out my apartment door. But that day has finally come and I wanted to make known what a terrific book this is.

You'll notice that this is quite a large book, set up in a binder format so that it can lay flat. There are two plastic covers that come with it, that you can set over a page to protect it from splatter. I'm too lazy to use them, but they seem like a good idea. Next, the inside covers have food equivalents and substitutions tables on them. This is almost my favorite part because it is so handy. Then we get into the actual book itself.

The first tab is baking basics and this is just a short section explaining methods, measuring tools, what kind of bakeware you should have, and the difference between eggs sizes and other such things. For someone who's new to the world of baking (or an expert who may not know a couple of things) this chapter is very useful. But enough about that, on to the food!

The first section is cookies and because cookies are easy to make, this is where I spent most of my time. The Cherry Pecan Dreams were pretty good and the Butter Wafers were easy to make and turned out light and crispy, as they should have been. Next, the Butterscotch Oatmeal Cookies were also delicious. But then there was the Chocolate Chunk Shortbread which was terrible and not very good tasting at all. Luckily, that was one of the only not so good things in this section. Further into the chapter, the Cinnamon Oatmeal Cookies were addicting, and I'm pretty sure that I ate the majority of them myself. The Orange Cinnamon Chocolate Chips Cookies were unique and I shared them at work where they were scarfed down instantly. And despite having made these cookies, there were much much more in this chapter that I haven't yet had the chance to make but am excited to try, like the Walnut Crescents.

The next chapter was Bars & Brownies. This section is a little shorter, but not by much, there are quite a few bars and brownies to be had. The Caramel Pecan Bars were easy to make, but a little overly sweet. But the Triple Nut Diamonds were faintly reminiscent of Pecan Pie and not hard to make despite looking complex. The Toffee Bars were also easy to make and tasted very good. I will say I wish I had made the Tiramisu bars already, they look delicious! It will definitely be on the list to try soon.

Cakes I didn't really get into that much. I'm not much of a cake eater, nor do I enjoy making them. They have about every cake and frosting you could think of listed in this section though, so if you do like cake, I'm sure you'll find something here.

Cupcakes are kind of like cakes, I don't find myself being drawn to make them either. But this was also a very small section compared to the rest so it may have just been that none caught my fancy. There are some Pumpkin Chip Cupcakes that might be good for the holidays though.

Cheesecake I can't stand, I've only ever made it for other people who like it (and I'm beginning to sound like I don't like sweets at all from the last three chapters, I do, really, I'm just picky about sweets). They certainly have some exotic sounding cheesecakes in this chapter though, like the Pina Colada Cheesecake or the Mexican Cheesecake (yes there are some savory ones listed).

The Pies and Tarts section is especially timely for the holidays. The Never Fail Pie Crust is definitely a recipes that someone who always has troubles with crusts (like me) should use. It was easy to make and use and tasted just fine for the pies in this chapter. For Thanksgiving last year, I made the Vermont Maple Oatmeal Pie which was definitely unique and enjoyed by the family and the Ginger Streusel Pumpkin Pie, which was a fancy take on the classic and probably the best loved pie at the holiday. I do have to say that I may make the Black Forest Tart for the holidays this year, it looks sinfully delicious.

The next section's title always makes me laugh because it's titled desserts. I thought that was everything in this book, but apparently not. There are a lot of cream puffs in this section, but I haven't yet made any of them. I have however made the Strawberry Pizza, which was among the favored desserts that I took into the workplace this year. And best of all, it was simple to make. The Banana Brown Betty was also easy to make, but turned out mushy and the taste was only ok. I think Brown Betty's should probably stick to other fruit.

I love Quick Breads. Easy, no time to rise, and usually delicious, they're great to take to potlucks or as a contribution to a group dinner. And there are several in this chapter that were successful. Like the Chocolate Zucchini Bread and the Lemon Bread, which had a light lemon flavor and a somehow dense yet light at the same time texture. The Lemon Blueberry Tea Bread was also nice, and had a cake-like texture to it. The Coconut loaf was a good idea too, but it was a little too dense in texture. I do wish I would have tried some of the savory quick breads in this chapter, but just haven't gotten to it yet. The Amish Onion Cake looks amazing.

Muffins, Biscuits and Scones is the next chapter in this giant of a book. I actually haven't tried anything from this section yet, and I'm not sure why. There's a bunch of different savory and sweet muffins, biscuits and scones in here. And the Pepperoni-Olive ones especially sound like a good snack.

Yeast Breads is a good section too. I actually like the process of kneading dough, it's a great way to get frustrations out. I actually made the Vermont Honey-Wheat bread the other day and it tasted just as a honey wheat should. Although it did take some very pricey ingredients like maple syrup and honey and a good amount at that. Still, it was perfect when toasted and slathered with peanut butter. The Pepper Cheese bread was good too, although a tad crumbly. And there are so much more in here, like the No-Knead Harvest Bread, that I would definitely like to try. There's even recipes for stromboli in this section.

The next section is Coffee Cakes and Sweet Rolls. As I scan this section I'm beginning to realize that I haven't really made it through this book much at all. There's just so much here! From doughnuts to sticky buns, it's a large section.

Almost Homemade I must admit that I largely ignored. I don't like using packaged mixes and that's what the majority of this is. Sure it's convenient, just not my style. In a book filled with so many other good things, this is just a section I'd avoid.

Trimmed Down Favorites is a section for those who want to indulge without killing their waistlines. The Makeover Frosted Banana Bars were really good and easy to make, but alas, I like full fat so they're the only thing I made in this section. They did have some gluten-free in this section as well though.

The last chapter is Holiday Classics and while I consider this all to be Holiday foods, Taste of Home gets specific. Nearly every holiday is represented here, from Christmas to Halloween to Easter. There's even St. Patty's day cupcakes.

And we end the book at the indices, which are general and alphabetical and a lot easier to find certain things than flipping through the book is. There's just so many recipes that it makes it hard to find things otherwise. Especially when you can have up to four per page. But even with that many recipes, there are still pictures of some of them on every page, which is nice. I like to compare what I make to the pictures to see if I did it right.

I really like this book and refer to it often if making something to share at work or at a group meal. Things are simple to make and understand, the instructions easy to work with, and the food more often than not delicious. Also, most of the ingredients are easy to find at your local grocery store. It can be overwhelming at times due to its sheer size and amount of recipes, but I try not to let it intimidate me too much. If you're a big fan of desserts or just like to bake this is probably the book for you. In fact, it might be the only one you need because of everything in it.

Oh, and before I forget to mention it, you also get a free year's subscription to Taste of Home magazine, which was a nice little surprise to come with the book.

Review by M. Reynard 2012