Review: Food: A Cultural Culinary History, by Ken Albala

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

51o1TuD7cGL._SL500_[1].jpgProfessor Albala opens with the above quote from Brillat-Savarin, and goes on to prove the truth of it by exploring man’s relationship to his food throughout the millennia. This course of 36 half hour lectures covering everything from the food of the hunter-gatherers of the stone age, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance when trade brought exotic foods and spices to the table, to the age of expansionism and empire when trade empires were created, often on the backs of native people, and finally into the modern age where he discusses food trends, GMOs, nutrition, and counterculture food movements.

Professor Albala is an engaging speaker, so each lecture seems to fly by, and yet each is filled with information about how the availability of food changed human life over and over, beginning with the change from hunter-gatherer tribes to agrarian societies, a change that didn’t just have an impact on what we ate, but also on how hard we worked to get it, and on people’s roles in society.

He explains the importation of spices and non-native foods to Europe, and how they were costly and therefore exotic and destined only for the nobility.  And he explains how falling prices changed tastes, and changed what people spent their money on (tea and sugar.) He also discusses non-European societies and how their cuisines informed and were informed by trade and colonization.

Moving into the present, he explains the process of industrialization of the food chain, the rise of factory farms, and how counterculture food trends have been co-opted by big business.  He also does a very good chapter on GMOs, what they are, and why they both are and are not problematic.  In the end, Albala is upbeat about the future, discussing what he believes are probable changes for the better.  And it’s hard not to feel hopeful when he explains his ideas about why our food situation will improve.

This is another terrific course from The Great Courses, and one of the most informative and useful ones I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.  On the strength of it, I’m going to look for more from Professor Albala.


Review: Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong

27746288[1]I spent 15 years caring for my parents, both of whom suffered from dementia, which made reading Goodbye, Vitamin a little uncomfortable for me. It brought back a lot of memories of trying to ride herd on a parent who wants to wander, being accused of all manner of crimes, or on the lighter side, telling the same joke over and over again and getting laughs because nobody ever remembered the punchline.

In the end, as smooth and readable as  the narrative was, I felt as if I was experiencing all of those things from a very great distance, as if Ruth was never fully engaged in the everyday problems of a caregiver.  It’s too clean, too neat to convey the crushing weight of loving someone who is disappearing.

I understand that this book is about Ruth and her relationship with her parents, about how she has avoided dealing with them until she has no choice, and how she comes to know them better through this experience. (Her father at least.  Her mother remains something of a cypher) But I couldn’t help but feel that she is still holding them at arm’s length; that she is with them because her relationships hadn’t panned out.

All the characters seem so passive.

I still enjoyed the book, but weirdly I found very little in it that I could connect to.  It didn’t really speak to my experiences of being a daughter of parents with dementia. And maybe that’s a good thing because I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed a book like that.  At least with Goodbye, Vitamin, I could appreciate the humor she found in her situation even if it wasn’t the same humor I found.

So yes, I liked it. I didn’t love it, and I probably won’t read it again.  But I might read more of Khong’s work in the future.

Review: The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman

34037113[1].jpgFor anyone who, like me, was enchanted by Hoffman’s story of the Owens women in Practical Magic, The Rules of Magic should be a treat. It’s a prequel to the first book and takes place largely in the 60s, following Franny and Jet — the aunties of Practical Magic — and their brother, Vincent, through their formative years. We watch them learn who and what they are, see them fall in love in spite of the family curse, swear off love, and ultimately realize that a life without love is worse than any curse.  We meet their parents, their partners, and by the end, we see how Gillian and Sally fit into the family history.

The Owenses go entirely their own way in life which also brings them a measure of grief, but it’s one of the things that makes them so appealing.  They do spectacularly bone-headed things, but instead of rolling my eyes and slamming the book shut, I accepted that these were the mistakes they had to make.  It’s part of Hoffman’s talent that I never lost patience with any of them.

The themes of sisters and siblings continues in this book, as does the larger theme of family.  The magic is both light and dark, just as life is.  There’s romance and tragedy, but there’s also acceptance and hard-headed determination. I loved it.  I finished the book and wanted to go right back and reread Practical Magic. These are books that will make you happy and break your heart, and don’t all the best novels do that?

Review: The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman

6559147[1].jpgThis is a reread for me. I read it first back in 2009, I believe, when it first came out, and I remember liking it, but for some reason never picking up the next book in the series. So flash forward to me thinking that since I’m a fan of the series, I really should go back, reread  the first book, and then finish the trilogy.  Makes sense, right?

I kind of wish I hadn’t. It started slow, which is fine, but it did pick up, and I remained interested through the first two thirds of the book.  And then it became harder and harder for me to want to finish it.  In fact, as I was reading last night, I raced through the last 100 or so pages thinking, Will this never end?

I simply didn’t understand why I was having that response until I started to poke and prod at what I’d read.  It was then that I realized that the largest part of the problem is the characterization. First, there are simply too many important characters. It’s very hard for a writer to juggle more than a few and Grossman gives us about a dozen people to follow, and many of them remain quite flat and uninteresting.  Even the main characters are never as dimensional as the characters in the TV series. Only Quentin comes close to being a fully realized character, and I found that he reminded me of Holden Caulfield, the embodiment of whiny adolescent angst, but with magic.

Oh I know there are the book purists out there who insist that the book is always superior to a filmed version and will hear no argument to the contrary, but I’m here to tell you that isn’t true.  Each medium is its own thing and it’s perfectly possible for a great book to be turned into dreck in the wrong hands, or a mediocre book to be made great in the right ones. But in the end, you can’t judge them against one another, you can only make comparisons.  And in this case, in the comparison I made between the levels of interest I had in the characters, the TV series won handily.  It made me sad because I know I’d enjoyed the book the first time around, but this time I found I was rolling my eyes and muttering “Get on with it!”

There are other problems, but I’m not going to belabor the point that the book didn’t hold up for me, that the series had taken the story into truly magical spaces that the book never touched. I’ll just say that it was a disappointment and leave it at that.  But I won’t be bothering with the other books in the trilogy.

Review: The Three Kingdoms of Ancient China: The History and Legacy of the Reunification of China after the Han Dynasty, by Jin Fang

28924924[1]I’m currently listening to Food: A Culinary History from The Great Courses, and when we got to the segment on ancient China I was blindsided by how interesting it proved to be.  Not that the rest of the course hasn’t been interesting, but because Chinese history has never been a particular interest of mine.  But today I came away from that lecture with a desire to read more about the Han dynasty.

Unfortunately as my funds are limited, I had to forego some of the pricier volumes.  I found The Three Kingdoms of Ancient China for a reasonable price on Audible and thought it might prove to be a good jumping off point.

Yeah, no. Not so much. It’s not remotely what I was interested in, which is at least in part my own fault since I should have taken the time to do more research about what it is I wanted to know (more of the information Professor Albala gives in the Food lectures.) But more problematic, it’s a dry recital of names and dates that manage to impart only minimal information to anyone not already familiar with Chinese history. There’s no real context, or at least I could find nothing that felt like a thread to follow.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t take away anything from the essay.  I did get a vague feel for the kind of intrigues which brought down the Han dynasty. But a lack of familiarity with Chinese names is an enormous handicap here because there are no personalities to the players. It’s more (Name 1) overthrew (Name 2) at (Place name) about (Date) which gave rise to (Name 1) claiming the throne.

I was looking for a social history and got a timeline. So kudos to Jin Fang for a clear and concise timeline, but I don’t think I’ll be getting any more of his work. Instead I’m going to spend some time figuring out exactly what it is I want to know, and then figuring out where I can find it.

Review: The Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman

34889952[1]I’ve been enjoying this series, so when The Housemate told me that it had come from the library, I was thrilled.  Alas, though this installment is good, I found that it lacked the excitement of the first three, though I’m still not quite sure why.

The story involves a rare book, of course, and several factions who want to find it. When the neutrality of The Library seems about to be compromised, Irene and Kai are sent to investigate and, if possible, fix the problem. What they find are warring dragons, possible fae intervention, a gangster who involves himself in the mess, and a librarian who is being extorted.

The characters seem tired to me, as if their hearts really aren’t in the job, or possibly as if the author didn’t entirely have her heart in her story. And while I applaud the inclusion of a non-white character, it felt as if there was no real meaning to the inclusion. The character is ineffectual, and seems to exist just so that occasionally someone will trot out a prejudice so the reader will think, oh that’s awful! And as I considered this, I realized that in spite of the Chinese names of the dragons, I never felt that I was reading Asian characters.

The other thing that bothered me was that the concept of the Language began to show cracks.  I had liked the conceit at the start of the series, but by this fourth volume I began to wonder why it was used in some circumstances but not in others, for example, when Kai and Everiste are searching for the rare book, why does Everiste, a full librarian who can use the Language, not use it to tell the book to show itself?  If they think that it’s in the same room they are, it would save a lot of time and searching, wouldn’t it?

I doubt I’d be picking things apart quite this much if I hadn’t felt that this was the weakest entry in the series.  The ending, though it was reasonably satisfying, felt a little glossed over to me as well, and so overall I am not sure how I feel about the idea of more books in the series. I will certainly pick up the next one, if there is one, but perhaps not with the same feeling of excitement.  And that’s a shame.

Review: Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook, by Christina Henry

32828538[1]Even as an audiobook, which reads slower than print for me, this was a fast read. (Yes, I use “read” for audiobooks, because I don’t think of it as something you do solely with your eyes.) It’s also an engaging one, and any problems I had with the narrative have nothing at all to do with Henry’s ability to hold my interest.  She has a writing style that caught hold of me and kept me listening even when I knew I had other things that needed doing.

Of course I tend to like reimaginings of classic tales, so right from the get-go I was inclined to enjoy Lost Boy. It’s a dark retelling, more Lord of the Flies in tone than a children’s story, making Peter Pan into the sociopathic villain of the piece, while his erstwhile best friend, Jamie (later to become Captain Hook) is the hero.

There are no happy endings here.  Children die, lives are ruined. Peter may not get exactly what he wants, but no one else does either. Jamie may grow up and turn his back on Peter, but they will never be free of each other.

The one bit of storyline that I found a little forced was the not-quite-romance angle.  I don’t think it was necessary, and I felt it slowed the narrative, and shifted the focus just enough that it took away some of the power of the resolution.   It felt pasteded on.

The ending has a Flying Dutchman feel to it, so that the story seems awkwardly unresolved, but in fairness, I’m not sure how it could have been resolved. Maybe my unease with it was exactly the response I was supposed to have.

All things considered, I do recommend it, and I really enjoyed the narration, so I would also recommend the audiobook version. It’s a nice piece of horror fiction with believable characters. I really couldn’t ask for a lot more.

Review: Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, by Shonda Rhimes

25690958[1]I am convinced Shonda Rhimes and I are twins separated at birth.  No, really.  I may be way older than she is and we’ve got different skin colors, but those are meaningless details compared to the way I heard myself in almost everything she says in this book.  We both describe writers as professional liars, for heaven’s sake!  That has to mean something, right?

My own identification aside, I’m wildly enthusiastic about Year of Yes because it is yet another of those wonderful, hilarious, thoughtful, positive books by women that I’ve been reading over the last months. And like those books, Year of Yes made me think hard about who I am and how I inhabit space in this world.

Long story short, Rhimes hears a hard truth from her older sister: “You never say yes to anything,” and has an epiphany.  She is going to say yes to everything for a year.  Why?  Because she recognizes how small her life has become in spite of her fame.  She recognizes that she is not happy which means that something about her life is out of whack, and she badly wants to fix it.  She wants to be happy again, to enjoy who she is and what she does, to enjoy her children, her work, her friends, her family, herself.

It’s not an easy route, though her good humored account of that year and its terrors and accomplishments make it seem so.  She’s so engaging that it’s easy to see why Shonda Rhimes is one of the most influential television writers working today.  Listening to the audiobook, narrated by the author, does make me wonder how someone so open, so hilarious, so seemingly confident could think of herself as an introvert.

No, I lie.  It’s not hard to see at all.  I’m an introvert and within my chosen parameters I can be open and confident too.  You just have to be comfortable enough to stop hiding.  That’s what saying yes was about, she forced herself to stop hiding and find a comfort zone in every situation.  That’s a lesson to this introvert who needs to learn to say yes more often.

Shonda, my fellow Chicagoan and fellow introverted writer, thank you for this book.  Thank you for saying yes.  Thank you.

Review: Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2), by Rachel Hartman

23280186[1]Upfront I have to say that much as I loved Seraphina and Tess of the Road, Shadow Scale is probably my favorite of the three. I recognize that’s a bit odd since the sophomore entry in a series is often the weakest, but in this case I think Hartman has enlarged upon not only her universe, but her themes as well, and that’s all to the good.

There’s so much to love about the Seraphina books; a heroine who doesn’t always get it right but keeps on trying, and supporting characters who are fully realized, and who clearly have a life beyond what we see in the narrative. Hartman also deals in some knotty questions about what it is to be different in different sorts of societies, what we owe to one another, and how it’s possible to be a good person while not giving up the things you need. It’s about strength, maturity, kindness, and common decency.  It’s about how reason and emotion can work in tandem to make our lives better.  It’s a surprisingly adult YA novel, not for sexual content, but for all the concerns that open up to us as we become adults.

And it’s fun.  While not as light-hearted as the first book, Shadow Scale does still have moments of humor, and deft word play that I find irresistible. Honestly, on the strength of the Seraphina books and the first (I hope) Tess book, I would read anything in this universe.  They’re that good.

Review: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

13160619[1].jpgAs I wrote in my review of Tess of the Road, I was so enthusiastic about this universe, and writer that before I finished the book, I’d bought the first two in the series. I can report that the first of these, Seraphina, did not disappoint.

We have a universe where humans and dragons co-exist.  After a long history of warfare between them, there has been a treaty, and while each group remains ambivalent about the other, the peace has held for many years.  And then the king’s son is killed, and it looks as if a dragon did the deed, threatening the fragile peace.

In the center of all this is Seraphina, a musician, tutor to Princess Glisselda, and a half-breed; half dragon, half human.  Common knowledge says she should not exist, but Seraphina is never one to be led by what is supposed to happen.  She’s a fiercely independent woman, who keeps her secret almost more to protect her family than anything else since  relations between humans and dragons are illegal.  The dragons do not even speak Seraphina’s mother’s name, so enormous was her shame at marrying a human.

This is a very different Seraphina from the one we meet in the book about Tess, because she is the point-of-view character, and not filtered through Tess’ perceptions of her.  She was a bit of a cypher in the later book, but here she is vivid and engaging.  She’s a woman who tries hard to do the right thing, but in the end she follows her instincts rather than the letter of the law. It doesn’t always work out perfectly — her heart leads her into some spectacular muddles — but we’re with her, wishing her well. And never once did I find myself yelling “Don’t be so stupid!” at her, which is something I do far too often with protagonists.

Hartman’s writing is a delight.  Not only can she tell a story, but her use of language is creative and often hilarious.  When I met Lucian Kiggs, prince of Goredd and Seraphina’s love interest, his surname made me giggle; it’s not at all a romantic hero’s name.  And yet I think that may be one of the reasons why he is so named.  Hartman likes to play against expectations. I also got a kick out of Dame Okra Carmine.  Not that the names are over the top goofy.  They just have enough humor threaded through them that the narrative never becomes histrionic.  In fantasy that’s a fine line, and I think Hartman walks it pretty well.

I’ve already started the second book, and I look forward to watching Seraphina grow into all this amazing promise she holds.  I want to see her relationships develop now that she is allowed to be who she is.  I think she’s going to crush it.