Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin It is difficult to convey the pleasure and excitement with which I read this history of Jane Franklin Mecom. Lepore carefully reconstructs the period in which the Franklins lived and pieces together the life of Franklin’s sister from fragments—using a few of the many letters she wrote to her famous brother, Benjamin Franklin. She forces one realize again what historical research requires, and how much we miss. But one comes away from Jane’s Book of Ages with wonder and awe at how much Lepore was able to capture through her assiduous researches.

Jane was the youngest of eight living children of Abiah and Josiah Franklin, six years younger than the youngest son, her famous and favorite brother, Benjamin. Franklin’s was a family of tradesmen, soapmakers, saddlemakers, candlemakers, and printers. Jane was born in late March 1712, married at fifteen and lived until early May 1794. She was eighty-three.

Jane Mecom née Franklin birthed some thirteen or fourteen children, most of whom preceded her in death. It is now thought that the family may have been tubercular, for they did not thrive, were languishing in health, layabout in deed, and several went mad if they survived beyond their twenties. “Very few we know is Able to beat thro all Impedements and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding.” Providence. So few are able to overcome the meanness of their birth and life to achieve something meaningful. Her brother did. In a different world, she might have been his equal.

Jane was scarcely free from child-raising her entire life. She admits that “tho they give grat Pleasure in common yet the Noise of them is some times troublesome.” And “I write among so much noise & confusion that if I had any thing of consequence I could no Recolect it.” She yearned to hear news of “Politicks” and every detail of the lives of her brother and her extended family. She loved to read and often asked that specific books be sent to her so that she could add them to her library.

This is thrilling history not only because of the momentous times in which Jane lived—through the cloth and tea boycotts in Boston, the battles at Lexington and Bunker Hill, and the longer war for independence that became the birth of the nation. She was a intimate correspondent with one of the most famous designers of the Constitution and loved and was beloved of him all her life.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this history is the fact that Lepore was able to construct it at all, given that so little remained of the woman and her chattel. Lepore has labored mightily to reconstruct this intimate portrait of a woman, her life, and locale. And this history does what all great histories do: they make us yearn to read more, discover more, learn all we can.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

The Heart of the Plate by Mollie Katzen

The Heart of the Plate Houghton Mifflin Harcourt deserves much credit for making this book as beautiful as it is. They have really made it the standard to reach. Katzen has done her cool line drawings--now in color!--on the endpages so with her tasty, (can I say thoughtful?), modern recipes her unique talents are again on display.

Now that I have had a chance to work with it a bit, I decided Katzen has chosen some real winners here. Her soups and salads are lovely to look at and probably worth the price of the book alone. She guides the beginner through the steps so that success can be yours right from the start.

I will say that she picked already favorites of mine, e.g., I cook greens almost every night and I often use the onion, garlic, red pepper combination that she recommends. I don't know if it is really appropriate to complain that some of the dishes are so simple as to make the cookbook shortly irrelevant. Most people are actively looking for simple and memorable and so great we can eat it again and again without dragging the cookbook out each time. She gets that and delivers.

But Mashed Parsnips? She has a whole section about mashing things up...cauliflower, broccoli, peas. At first I thought: if it is fresh, it seems a sin to mash it up. It was such a mystery, I tried it...three vegetables: carrots, parnips and peas. Let me tell you something: it was terrific! I especially liked it left over, room temperature, as a dip for crackers. It is infinitely more interesting, pretty, and exciting than any of the usual dips featuring cheese or (god forbid!) sour cream. And for lunch or as a snack as you are preparing a real dinner, this may just the thing to make you a happy person.

She has an interesting sauces and dressings section which is useful for folks on the go. You can dip crudités or drizzle over roasted veggies...(what is better tasting and easier to cook than roasted veggies?) I like her use of pomegranate molasses. What else I like: sometimes folks have difficulty figuring out what vegans eat. She very naturally makes meals of vegetables and grains that do not include cheese or dairy and reminds us that, by the way, this is vegan. It is a very unobtrusive way to introduce vegan entrees to the mainstream and show everyone how really very simple it can be to cook for vegans.

I also like the "light" quality of the recipes. There were one or two recipes that gave me pause: Bulgur with Spaghetti, and Banana Cheese Empanadas. I think she is just daring us to try them. She also has one that sounds kind of intriguing: Toasted Barley Dumplings. As a side, it can take care of the carb portion of a vegetable meal.

Truth is, The Moosewood Cookbook: Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, Ithaca, New York was something like the second cookbook I ever owned. Katzen therefore had an outsized influence on my eating habits. I still admire what she can do. What she has produced here is exciting because it gives new clues to intriguing combinations of things I like already.

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Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls David Sedaris just keeps on bringing the ridiculousness of our lives to the fore, forcing us to look, really look at some of our less heroic moments...and laugh. What a (sometimes hysterical) relief it is to know that our own stupidity or failures are not unique to ourselves. He also tells us what we look like to others when we are less than our better selves. I often wonder what it would be like to be laughing along with his listening crowd, only to come to recognize some of the stories he is relating. "I was there!" would certainly better than "That was me!"

My favorite Sedaris bits come when he is talking about his experiences travelling or learning a new language. In this new book he has a section about taking planes that had me shaking with laughter…how people, especially Americans, put on their most ragged clothes to travel across the world or across the country mystifies both him and me. “I want to be comfortable,” I have heard travelers wearing worn sweat pants explain, as though wearing silks and cashmere is not comfortable. Cost is not really an issue: anyone flying to China or Australia can certainly spring for a new sweater.

But I was also surprised this time how some of Sedaris’ jokes felt edgy, jagged, and hurtful. I realize that beating up on his Dad is one of his schticks. And if what he says in the beginning of this series of routines were true, about his Dad beating him and blaspheming him as a kid, then I guess his Dad is getting off easy by being the brunt of his jokes as Sedaris travels around the world broadcasting to everyone who will listen. But I long ago learned that hurtful things said “in jest” are not really funny to anyone but the jester.

Sedaris talks a little about how he makes up his routines by keeping a journal as he travels. He spends time taking brief notes when something strikes him as remarkable, and then he spends a lot of time typing it up into what was so remarkable about it so that he can remember it clearly. His endless stories are not things “that just come to mind:” he really works at it, even if it means he doesn’t have time to see all the sights in those great places he visits on his speaking tours.

My least favorite part of this book was a special section he created because he discovered that young people liked to use his work as dramatic monologues. He didn’t think his previous work had enough of the elements that would make a dramatic monologue successful, so he set about making something new just for those folks interested to try it themselves. I thought perhaps these would be better with someone else doing the reading…a droll young woman, perhaps, or a dull young boy.

Anyway, Sedaris is always interesting for what he sees about the world and dares to speak.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson

Spirit of Steamboat: A Walt Longmire Story (Walt Longmire #9.1)
Johnson has gifted us a short, white-knuckled Christmas story that is likely to become a classic. We all know Sheriff Longmire and how he took over the chief law enforcement job in Absaroka County from old Lucian Connally. This story brings them back working together again on a cold and stormy night--Christmas Eve in Montana back in 1988.

This mad twosome seems to go out of its way to test the edges of possibility. In this story, they are doing it for all the right reasons, and at a time when most folks want to be cuddling at home with their families. Central to the action is an old copy of A Christmas Carol which you might want to glance at before or after this slim 100-page novella, just to put you in the mood. This story is just long enough to read after you have laid out gifts “from Santa” under the tree and before heading up to bed.

Bourbon is Connally’s drink of choice…you may want to salute him with a glass after reading this little act of crazy heroism. It does make a good story, a nice little gift for Santa to enjoy, just as though he/she were sitting around with his/her ‘buds’ telling tall tales late into the night…

Merry Christmas, one and all! Hope your year was a great one, but if it wasn’t, 2014 is just around the corner and you can begin again. This little novella is a gift you give yourself. It can be downloaded instantly or ordered in paper from the retailer or your choice using those percentage-off coupons you must be getting in your mailbox. Treat yourself!

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A Tale for theTime Being by Ruth Ozeki

Hardcover, 422 pagesPub March 12th 2013 by Viking ISBN13: 9780670026630

Every picture I’ve seen of Ruth Ozeki shows her smiling broadly, like a woman who knows what happy is. How then, I wondered as I began this wonderful, fabulous, crazy novel, does she have her main characters contemplate suicide? This disconnect was one spur to my reading, and the other was the clarion voice and view of teenager Nao who told us of her life in Japan.

Ozeki does what great authors (e.g., Morrison, Saramago, Kertész) do: she takes critical, current questions we face as human beings on earth and makes us think about them. She also offers answers, something for which I admire her even more. She allows us to realize that there are people of great talent and humility out there who are willing to put their wealth, time, even lives on the line for the least of us. She makes us look at the world in a new way. She gives us hope.

I have placed Ozeki among the greats, but she is less somber than the others often are. She is playful. She is funny. She is real. I attribute this ease of handling big issues to Ozeki’s life as a Zen Buddhist priest. There was not a moment I was not rapt in her vision. This novel is a mystery, slowly unfolding, about a young girl whose diary washes up on a Canadian island some years after the tsunami disaster in Japan. The girl tells of her life and that of her parents after they moved back to Japan from America in the dot com downturn. It is not a happy time, and both the young girl and her father contemplate suicide. Her hundred-and-four-year-old-great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun, discourages this path.

Parallel to this are the lives of Ruth (who rescued the diary), her husband Oliver, and their cat Pesto. All live near Whaletown, a locality on a small island off the coast of Vancouver. She is a writer, he is a land artist, and the cat is a pest. Ruth claims to experience writer’s block, but at the same time she admits to dream-like sessions where she writes for hours, unconscious, only to awake and reread what she has written with surprise and awe. It is difficult for me to imagine a woman with Ozeki’s vivid imagination having writer’s block, but I think many of us can write…we just can’t always write meaningfully on a specific topic whenever we sit down. Writer’s block, dreaming, same thing.

There is also something bigger here, a discussion of wave theory and quantum theory. If one has time, and inclination, there is something larger behind the ordinary story of a girl displaced and despondent, or a woman with writer’s block, though both can be related to these larger theories of how the world works. And I like to think that Haruki Number Two was on to something with his work in origami, bending and folding and placing two dissimilar moments in time next to one another, so closely that they align and form something new.

If I were a graduate student in literature, I might just like to take on the notion of dreams in the works of Pynchon (Bleeding Edge) and Ozeki (For the Time Being). There is something impactful in the dreams we often disregard, and perhaps we should pay attention.

Anyway, there is nothing new in being despairing about the evil in the world, or the possibility of multiple outcomes. “Nothing is new, if you buy the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.” We can use our knowledge for evil or good, and there have to be enough good folks left alive to keep bad folk in check. We must struggle on to make a difference in outcomes.


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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Home by Toni Morrison


Toni Morrison reminds us that home has no physical boundary nor any physical location but is always about love. We find home wherever “our people” be.

Morrison reads the novel for Random House Audio and she reads it slowly, like poetry, like she means every word and every word has a meaning. She sets the scene in the late fifties, early sixties, in a time we may have forgotten. The Korean War has ended but Blacks still do not have the right to vote. A young soldier comes ‘home’, his mind disarranged, and finds himself imprisoned with no explanation. But the army had been “good to him” and told him not to worry about those episodes he has…

His sister has managed without him, but misses him. She has just gotten a job with a doctor who treats mostly poor patients, some of whom die from his treatments…and then shes gets sick, too, because that doctor is trying to create a new series of drugs or instruments and, well, he used her as a subject.

But there is nothing that can be done, because this is just the way it is…was…and home has so many meanings. Home is where we are, no matter we like it or not.

Toni Morrison makes rainbows from rainy days and does what writers might aspire to: to tell the god-awful truth in language so clear and so bald and so beautiful that we read it to know…to know what home really is, what our world really is, what we really are.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Pinkerton's Great Detective by Beau Riffenburgh

Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland
For folks who imagine themselves interested in working for the Secret Service, Homeland Security, the FBI, or as a spy, this book can tell you what it was like in the way back in America. You may find you don’t have the constitution for it after all.

This book is subtitled “The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland,” if that really was his name. McParland began his undercover career in the anthracite mines of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania reporting on the murderous Molly Maguires in 1875. Remarkably, he was so intent upon keeping himself alive amidst the mayhem, he didn’t get to reporting on killings until after the deeds were done. Such was the violence of the crimes that first-hand observer McParland got physically ill…the stress of undercover work gave him severe intestinal problems and his hair fell out in handfuls.

Years of trials and testimony regarding events in Pennsylvania followed and then McParland went West, presumably to get away from those that knew his face. He pursued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and worked to bring down strikers working with the Western Federation of Miners. Almost from the start, I admit I found myself disliking this “devout Catholic” who came to be “powerful, successful, and respected…Even decades later the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was still honoring him for his work…as well as for his devotion to the [Denver] parish and his many contributions to the building of Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.” My reservations about the man and my conflicted feelings about law enforcement in the early days of the West undoubtedly tell more about me than McParland. Perhaps popular movies about the period influence me still.

This dogged and detailed history is a must read for those interested in the Molly Maguires, The Wild Bunch, or the beginnings of Pinkerton’s undercover investigations and expansion out West. For those with a more cursory interest, flipping through will yield nuggets that stay with you on your journey to understand our historical underpinnings.

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GIVEAWAY -- Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe -- ends 12/17/13

Foreign Gods, Inc.
Soho Press is publishing Okey Ndibe's second novel Foreign Gods, Inc in early January 2014. I was fortunate enough to get two Advance Reader copies of this novel and would be happy to share one of my copies with an interested reader of my blog. You will certainly receive it in time for Christmas.

Ikechukwu Uzondu, though a recent magna cum laude graduate of Amherst College, is driving a cab in New York City. He has a thick Nigerian accent, a gambling habit, and a manipulative ex-wife. When Ike hears that an art boutique in New York is looking for authentic foreign deities, he hatches a scheme to return to his native village to steal the effigy of Ngene, the god of war. While this might sound like a bad idea even to those of us who don't believe in "the gods," Ike seems to think it will solve his problems. It may, but perhaps not in the way he is hoping.

I haven't had the chance to read this title myself, but I thought I'd share my extra copy now in case someone out there wants to read it with me, and possibly post a review in this blog. We can do a conversational question-and-answer review, or just each write our own thinking.

Sign up below with the secure form below. We only have seven days for this giveaway so don't delay!

12/17/13: We have a winner! Thank you everyone!

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Edisto by Padgett Powell

Edisto For years I’d heard about folks interested to get a first edition copy of this novel, so I’d assumed it was a classic. Written in the time before Goodreads, it does not have a long history of reviews there, but I trust many members have read this classic since it first came out in 1985. Republished now as an ebook under the aegis of Open Road Media, this little gem gets a new airing.

A young boy grows up in his single mother’s beachside home in South Carolina. She works all day as a professor so often leaves him to his own devices. He makes friends among the locals, his maid’s friends, and chums at the local public school. Thinking that a little encouragement from birth might make a difference in his development into a writer of repute, his mother surrounds his crib with classic literature. He is given a notebook in which to record his adventures.

Our boy, Simons (pronounced Simmons) Everson Manigault, is twelve. He has a vocabulary that belies his chronological age, but there is much about the world he still needs to learn. The mysteries of adulthood top his list.

Written in dialect and in the sketchy way of a journal, this may be a little hard to follow at first, but rewards the reader in the end. I recommend plowing through, for by the end you have entered into the language, the time, the place, and the ethos. Circling back to the start once again, you will realize how much you understood, and how much you would still like to glean from this marvelous harvest. We understand, deep in our bones, what has happened here, and how the world, truly a mystery to an adolescent who has no grasp of larger issues, appears to unfurl in all its tattered glory.

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Where was I when this came out in 2007? When I discovered this title recently in someone else’s TBR list, I immediately added to my own. The novel is an absurdist romp with a heart of gold (and romance). I belly-laughed through the first bits, looked askance at the portion where the Prime Minister’s aide imagines a quiz show in Pakistan, and couldn’t wait to find out the result of the ridiculous, bound-to-fail salmon fishery in Yemen. I wanted to believe, as the sheik says.

This worthy novel has already been made into a Golden Globe-nominated film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt which was released in 2011. I look forward to seeing what Director Lasse Hallström has done with the absurdist concepts, poking fun at government spending on dubious projects which serve only to keep current officials election-worthy. Torday captures the dueling-memo mentality of government bureaucracies competing for limited funds, and the stilted, unsexy email correspondences of working spouses.

And yet, there is more than mere farce in the developing faith our fisheries expert has in the doomed project, and in his blossoming love for his “estate agent” colleague. I listened to the 2007 Orion production of the audiobook supported by a full cast including Downton Abbey star Samantha Bond (you’ll recognize her voice immediately) along with John Sessions, Andrew Sachs, Andrew Marr and many more. The audiobook is a brilliant success as each character is enunciated by actors with great skills. This audiobook production ranks among the best I have heard in recent years and is well worth seeking out.

I look forward also to seeking out more of Torday’s titles. And I adore the covers for his books. I note the publisher remains an imprint of George Weidenfeld & Nicholson throughout his list. These exceptionally fine covers could be done in-house at the publishers, but more likely they are created by a friend. What a great gift to the author, and to us, to see two artistic talents melded. Kudos Torday, et al!

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Friday, December 6, 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

The Testament of Mary Those of us who grew up listening to Bible stories may enjoy this chance to reimagine the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As we listen to the clear and (should I say?) bitter tones of Meryl Streep reading Tóibín’s words, we realize that not much had been said of Mary in the Bible, as though she had been an unimportant part of the life of Jesus. Or perhaps, using a modern-day sensibility, she shunned the limelight, and others sought to protect her anonymity and her right to privacy by nearly erasing her from the proceedings. Rethinking the story suddenly makes the whole series of events leading to the death of Jesus fresh again, completely vital, and filled with horror.

I was awakened to this performance by a review by Charles Isherwood in the 11/24/13 NYT book review section. Isherwood tells us that this story was conceived as a dramatic monologue performed by the Irish actress Marie Mullen in Dublin in 2011, and was later expanded into a book, which was then shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

The audio of this short novella is a mere three hours, but it is filled with new slants on old miracles like the death and resurrection of Lazarus, the changing of water into wine, walking on water, among others. It tells of the crucifixion and the rising again. But what it did specifically for me at this time of year was to remind me again of the reason for Christmas, something we all need to be reminded of every year.

As literature, this short novella churned the creative juices and made me realize we all came away from those stories with ideas about how it could have played out, though I was too young at the time to imagine the pain a mother would experience watching her son be broken. There is a historical basis for much of what is written in the Bible though perhaps the interpretations are embellished and imagined. It behooves us to take the opportunity to reexamine these stories and ideas once again, whenever we can, to see if it sheds new light on our understanding of the underpinnings of our beliefs.

I also relish the opportunity to challenge my own knowledge of and understanding of “the facts of the case” and see how those facts fit with what Tóibín has shared with us. I am reminded once again how surprised I am when I discover my own sentiments in the mouth of another, one who lived hundreds (and this case, thousands) of years before me. When we hear of the governance and trials taking place, do we imagine that these people had no sense of justice? How else could a system of courts and hearings and trials, no matter how flawed, have come into being? I loved being reminded of these things, and I encourage you to have a look, no matter your religious background. These stories are part of the underpinnings of much of the political structures in the Western world, like it or not, and it is fruitful to be reminded.

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America George Packer returned from several years overseas writing about problems of the United States in the world, never imagining that the United States would become his next subject. But he was appalled with the condition of America when he returned and wondered what had happened to our forward momentum. In reading this book, you may feel the perplexity I had in the beginning, for his stories are wide-ranging and diverse and seem to bear no relation to one another. But slowly the accretion of pages, stories, and facts begin to take their toll and we begin to glimpse the outlines of our recent past and possible reasons for it. And something akin to a slow-burning rage may take hold in your breast.

Packer might be flint to dry tinder—many of us know what we think might be wrong with governance, banks, farming, energy policy, education—Packer hits all the hot, dry, sore spots in his round-the-country assessment in the form of interviews. He does not paint a flattering picture of anyone, really, (which one of us is perfect?) but neither is he completely negative except for the portrait of Newt Gingrich. Newt looks and sounds like a megalomaniac on the level of Ron Hubbard and according to Packer may have been the beginning of Washington’s political dysfunction and discourtesy. If Newt had left Washington when he was thrown out of office, we may have been saved, but he stayed around tinkering with political leadership using money and words. But Newt is not single-handedly responsible. We have ourselves to thank.

Packer allows us to imagine our own choices, had we other people’s lives. He is explanatory rather than judgmental. He shows us the curve of the earth and allows us to use our experience and observation to draw our own conclusions. And he is radicalizing me. I realize my own collection of facts, tempered by my education and experience, have caused within me a slow-burning anger over the widening inequality and waste of our vast resources, both human and soil-based. I do not admire the men and women of our Congress and I do not admire the echelons of wealthy bankers and corporate executives. I do not aspire to, nor do I wish my children to aspire to, their ranks. I want them to realize they are us, albeit with money they frankly do not deserve.

Packer is not prescriptive so the answers must come from within ourselves. But he does point out that the 99% have already staged a mass action in Occupy Wall Street. Deep feelings of injustice already roil through our cities and countryside. Now is the time to learn the skills you will need should your house be lost in a tornado, an earthquake, a flood, or a firestorm. Now is the time to be the leaders you wish your Congresspeople were. Now is the time to think for ourselves. Think. Soon, it will be time to short Wall Street.

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