Friday, October 24, 2008

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen

by Julie Powell

A book born of a blog, in which the author, a temp from Long Island, challenges herself to make every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s an interesting idea and Powell has some writing chops, but I was turned off by the excessive melodrama.

I don’t know if Powell exaggerated the ridiculous amount of opposition and dismay that her mother and others reacted with when they heard about this harmless, fun, silly little project, but I hope so.  I hope she made up, for the sake of drama, all the tear-stained hysteria that Powell engaged in many, many times over the year.  If not, both Powell and her mother have serious mental problems.   At times I was amused by the book, but never fascinated, and often irritated by Powell and her friends. 

two stars

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hell: A Prison Diary

by Jeffrey Archer

The millionaire author and lord is sentenced to four years for perjury (he elides over the specifics of his case), and details his 21 days at London’s Belmarsh Prison while waiting on appeal.  It’s an interesting look at the British penal system, which seems to suffer from some of the same defects at the American one (too many inside for drugs, too many first offenders turned into career criminals by associating with them on the inside, not nearly enough education or other incentives to improve).  However, he’s befriended and protected instantly by the inmates; he goes through no kind of danger or deprivation as a “new fish.”

As a reporter of the underbelly of society, Archer is either immensely naïve or pretending to be, because he’s shocked at nearly everything.  I also wonder if his fellow inmates appreciated him printing their anecdotes and conversations, especially as he quotes some of them as asking him not to repeat certain things which he goes on to recount in detail.  In any case, it’s a little lightweight as a “prison diary” (I understand there are two more volumes, one for each prison he was sent to), and Archer’s main complaint is boredom and bad food, so it’s not exactly the most dramatic prison book I’ve read.

two stars

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Harry Potter And the Chamber Of Secrets

by J.K. Rowling

In his second year at Hogwart’s, Harry discovers that the school hides a terrible monster, one that terrorized the school fifty years ago and killed a student.  When “Mudbloods” (wizard children of normal parents, or half-breeds) start ending up petrified, and Hagrid is implicated, Harry and Ron act to discover what secrets the school hides.

This was a terrific sequel, in my mind better than the rather reductive first book.  While Rowling is stretching it with the “pitiful orphan” bit at the beginning (would the Dursleys really continue treating Harry that way, knowing how powerful he and his friends are?), everything after is fantastic.  I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even think for a moment that the monster would be a basilisk, despite the petrification; I really enjoyed in retrospect the clues Rowling left (puddles of water, a broken camera, a mirror).  The climax, too, was ultimately more satisfying; Dumbledore was absent from the school, so it really was up to Harry to save the day (though not without help from various sources).  I also liked the message, that our choices form us more than our abilities.  Packed with humor and suspense and satisfying comeuppance, this book made me think the Potter-mania wasn’t just hype.

four stars

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

by Barbara Kingsolver

The author and her family move to a house in the southern Appalachians with a bit of land and embark on a year of eating as locavores.  With a few exceptions, they eat only things that originate within 100 miles of their farm.  Much of their meat and produce is grown themselves, and they make a point of knowing the origins of the other items.

It’s a bit heavy on the preaching (especially the brief fact boxes from Steven Hopp, Kingsolver’s husband), but then, this is a topic very easy to get worked up about, and it makes for fascinating reading regardless.  There’s a vast wealth of common-sense information here backed up with facts and figures, about the use of fossil fuels to transport food, the way food factories are destroying America’s health at the taxpayer’s expense, how a disconnect between the making of food and the eating of food is connected to America’s fear of food and obesity epidemic, and so forth.  It really is a persuasive, important book, every page a reminder of how corporations crush small business and sell us fetid garbage made cheap through subsidies.  I read it wishing everyone in America would read it and take its crucial messages to heart.  Not everyone needs to be a locavore, but everyone ought, at the very least, understand where food comes from and the benefits of eating sustainable, humane, farm food. 

four stars

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott

The last time I read this was probably 26 or so years ago. Being on a children’s literature kick lately, I thought I ought to revisit this 450-page “girls’ book.” The plot is linear, episodic, and simple. The four March sisters grow up to embrace their less exalted positions in the world and find happiness in the simple pleasures of family and home.

I can’t deny the lasting appeal of Alcott’s characters, especially the literate and introspective Jo (based on the author herself); and I enjoyed the depiction of the sisters growing up alongside their boy neighbor. But I had forgotten or possibly never realized how didactic, priggish, and tedious this book is, its primary purpose apparently being to moralize to young girls. The book’s a product of its time, of course, and I have no problem with moral lessons in literature as a general rule. But I do object to being moralized at directly by the narrator and to being told rather than shown the conclusions I as a reader must draw. Of course, I’m a thirty-something-year-old man in the 21st century, and the book was written for young girls in 1870. Still, so was Alice in Wonderland, and that’s timeless. This book, not so much. It also features some of the most nauseating fake children’s speech ever (“Opy doy, me’s tummin!”).

[read twice]

three stars