Sunday, November 21, 2010

Gothic Reading Challenge

Signing up for this challenge was really a no-brainer. I love a delightfully chilling gothic setting, and this will give me a great excuse to soak up a number of these books. I'm not sure which level I'll be attaining, probably somewhere in the 5-10 book range. We shall see. Still I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Fifty States Reading Challenge

Challenge sign-up season has begun, and up first for me is The Fifty States Reading Challenge. The goal is to read a fiction book set in each of the fifty states. This is definitely going to be a challenge, and I'm looking forward to tackling it. We'll see if I can get the whole thing done in a year. I'm not going to list my books in advance- for this many I need the freedom to choose as I go.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Review: Fannie's Last Supper

Chris Kimball decided that it was a good idea to try and recreate a twelve-course Victorian dinner party. He devoted several years of his life to this project, and this book is the story of how he did it. As his manual Kimball took the most popular of late-nineteenth century cookbooks, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. And the meal is quite a production: multi-tier jellies, complicated fried artichokes, old world punch. Many of the dishes are also disgusting to the modern palate: brain balls in soup, gelatin made out of calves' hooves. Readers should be aware that the description of some of these dishes is truly disgusting, but in a train-wreck-can't-look-away way. To add to the "authenticity" of the meal, Kimball chose to create the meal on a Victorian-era coal stove, a practice which caused its own problems, including impossible temperature regulation, and a kitchen so warm that one of the chef's pants melted.

The book intersperses the history of Farmer and Victorian cooking with Kimball's own efforts to recreate a Victorian meal. Each chapter is organized around one of the courses, but the historical information often bears little relevance to the particular course at hand. Some chapters are better at establishing this relevancy than others.

More of an issue for me was the fact that I just could not get into the purpose of this project. I couldn't help but thinking throughout that this was a lot of money wasted for no particular purpose. Kimball produced a PBS documentary on his Victorian dinner as well, and I have to wonder if this was a project better suited to film than to a book. I'll probably seek out the documentary. Perhaps that will change my impression that this project marks a case of privileged foodies getting together to play Victorian gentry.

Chris Kimball, Fannie's Last Supper: Re-Creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook (Hyperion, 2010) ISBN: 1401323227

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: How to Survive a Natural Disaster

My main thought when reading this book was "Wow, I didn't see that coming." I thought I knew how this book was going to end, but I ended up being surprised, which is a good thing. My second thought upon finishing this book: this is one messed-up family. Told by six different characters, including a dog, this is the story of a last-ditch effort to save a marriage, and the profound effects of those efforts on everyone else.

That last-ditch effort is a child, May, adopted from Peru by the disastrous Roxanne in an effort to salvage her marriage to Craig. The entire family is messed-up, both parents are treacherously immature. May copes with her family by going mute, and by becoming obsessed with her sister, April. April cannot cope with the attention, and neither girl gets what she needs from their mother. The family is clearly headed into a downward spiral to disaster. There's some foreshadowing to the ultimate crisis, but the form of that crisis still comes as a shock.

I was very suspicious of a book that is, in part, narrated by a dog, but it's not gimmicky in the way I expected. This is actually quite an engaging book, and I became invested in May's future.

Margaret Hawkins, How to Survive a Natural Disaster (Permanent Press, 2010) ISBN: 1579622046

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Books Campaign: Bottled and Sold

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on "green" books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on the Eco-Libris website. Bottled and Sold is printed on recycled paper.

Bottled water creates environmental issues not only in landfills, but also in communities where water is sourced. To be labeled "spring water" water must be sourced from underground aquifers, which are depleted far more quickly than their ability to self-replenish. Communities with bottling plants have found their water resources diminishing at an alarming rate.

Media and marketing play significant roles in creating the public frenzy for bottled water. The marketing of mainstream bottled water regularly suggests that it is better-tasting, purer, and safer than tap water. As Gleick proves, however, these claims are specious, at best. Blind taste tests have shown that many people do not prefer the taste of bottled water. Most interesting to me was the difference in safety standards applied to bottled and tap water. Tap water is regulated by the EPA, and must be tested multiple times daily. Any problem must be reported within hours. Bottled water is regulated by the FDA, and is required to be tested far less frequently, once monthly at best in many cases.

Marketing issues are not restricted to claims of safety and purity. Gleick's research also highlights the growth of a snake-oil like water hucksters who claim their bottled water has magical or healing properties. Some bottled waters claim to have realigned their molecules to create curative powers, or they claim to have spiritual powers, most famously the Kabbalah water favored by Madonna, among others. Minimal regulation allows these bottlers to make various unsubstantiated claims, and extort monies from willing believers.

Most troubling to Gleick is the fact that the increasing privatization of water may make potable water a luxury, rather than a necessity. If municipal water systems are ignored in favor of bottled water, the most vulnerable populations will be left without water resources. This is the problem Gleick most wants to stop. He is not advocating a complete ban on bottled water, but he is calling for tighter regulation, and more transparency on the effects of the bottled water industry.

One might think that a book on bottled water would not be interesting, but this was a highly readable book, decidedly engaging for anyone with an interest in social or environmental issues. Glecik's book is well-researched. This is a man who certainly knows his water. I can certainly recommend this book to other concerned readers.

Bottled and Sold is a book about the implications of the mass consumption of bottled water. Touching on the most well-known problem created by bottled water, millions of plastic bottles left in landfills, as well as more subtle issues, Gleick provides a comprehensive look at the environmental and social effects of bottled water. And those effects are staggering.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: Blood Orange

This is a novel of child abduction and torrid love affairs, and what happens when these things intersect. The book opens with a community searching for the missing seven-year-old Baily Cabot. The book then moves back into the months preceding Baily's disappearance. Baily's mother made a fateful trip to Rome, and her father, an attorney, undertook the defense of a high-profile client, a suspected murderer. It quickly becomes clear that one, or both, of Baily's parents might know more about their daughter's abduction than they are telling.

I expected this to be a book about what happens to a family when a child is abducted, but it is actually a book about what happens to a family when a child is returned. I found that to be a refreshing change. It's difficult for me to offer too many of my thoughts without giving away the plot, but I can say that I did find Baily's mother Dana difficult to comprehend. As it becomes clear that she might know more about Baily's disappearance than she's telling, it was difficult for me understand how she could not come forward. The prose read easily, and was reasonably engaging.

Drusilla Campbell, Blood Orange (Kensington, 2005) ISBN: 0739455028