Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki

"I mean, if I thought the world would want to know about old Jiko, I'd post her stories in a blog, but actually, I stopped doing that a while ago. It made me sad when I caught myself pretending that everybody out there in cyberspace cared about what I thought, when really nobody gives a shit. And when I multipied that sad feeling by all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they're all so busy writing and posting it kind of broke my heart."

Tracks - Robyn Davidson

"There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns - small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs with Day-glo and realized this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence - and lasted about ten seconds."

From the Postscript (2012):
"The question I'm most commonly asked is 'Why?'. A more pertinent question might be, why is it that more people don't attempt to escape the limitations imposed upon them?"

Friday, February 07, 2014

Questions of Travel - Michelle De Kretser

"I don't want to be a tourist in my own country."

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

"Paradise Under Glass" - Ruth Kassinger

Paradise Under Glass: The Education of a Indoor Gardener

Ruth Kassinger's book centers around the project of building a conservatory in her home. The author wasn't really a gardener to begin with: in fact she starts the book off by explaining her difficulty in taking care potted plants over the years. 

What really drew her to the idea was an impromptu visit to the United States Botanic Gardens' Conservatory. Why not create a tropical Eden in her own backyard? The book chronicles the building of the structure as well as her experiences in finding plants that fit the requirements of being visually stunning and not too sensitive to the vagaries of her somewhat forgetful gardening skills. 

 Interspersed throughout are chapters on history: the first conservatories, the evolution of their design, plant explorers in tropical regions, the Victorian fern mania and the history of pesticides and biological pest control. I actually found these parts the most interesting in the book. There is also an ongoing narrative about the loss of her sister to cancer and her own battle with the disease. Without wanting to sound cold-hearted I felt this took some of the pleasure of reading the book away. Not only because it is, of course, always painful to read about tragic personal histories, but it is doubly so in a book that presents itself as a memoir of a leisure project. Furthermore, I didn't think it enriched the narrative of building and planting the conservatory - it simply made me sad. 

The actual choosing and placing of greenery in a modern hot-house seems to be a flimsy subject and as such is supplemented by visits of the author to several places in the U.S.: some legendary nurseries of tropical plants, a butterfly farm, a commercial operation in Florida. Interesting, but felt slightly like filler material.

 I wanted very much to love "Paradise Under Glass". After all, I've always had a thing for conservatories myself. I was expecting something akin to Amy Stewart's From the Ground Up, but in the end felt Kassinger's book didn't deliver that feeling of absolute enthusiasm and roll-up-your-sleeves giddiness.

Once upon a time a conservatory was only for the royalty and then the incredibly wealthy, the author informs us. But as we witness the construction of a pricey structure, designed by an architect, put together by skilled workers, complete with swimmimg-pool and filled with hundreds of expensive plants we have to wonder if it really is that different today. Maybe it's my own poor fault but I really couldn't relate to this memoir.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Secret Life of Lobsters" - Trevor Corson & Mark Kurlansky "The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York"

I've never eaten oysters and only tried lobster once (and don't remember it very well to tell the thruth, so this might seem like a strange pair of books to review. Although different in narrative style - Corson focuses on a few fishermen and scientists to tell his story, while Kurlansky takes on the entire story of New York City and the close relation with its oyster beds - they do share similarities. Both speak of food items that were once so plentiful as to be thought of as poor people fare. The case of oysters is a little different since, as the author points out, it was probably one of the few dishes in history to be simultaneously a luxury and a daily meal (for oystermen, but also people of modest means). And both - the history of the eventual destruction of New York oyster beds and the struggle to understand the reality of lobster grounds (are they being overfished or not?) speak of our abuse of resources and our ignorance of the natural world and its rhythms. "Lobsters" proved a more agreable read: there is a lot about the science of lobsters (and it's great how passionate the scientists and fishermen are about these weird crustaceans. Corson style of non-fiction narrative is definitely a grower. Although I kept confusing the various lobstermen families I still found everyone very interesting and story engaging. Kurlansky's book is more about the ties to New York City history and lacks actual protagonists. At times I felt the story lagged a little. Still, for oyster devotees I imagine it nust be a fascinating read.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I was a latecomer to the web sensation site - Design*Sponge. However, to my credit, I loved it at first glance. Grace Bonney's book was a birthday gift from my sister and I have looked through it again and again these past months.

I'm interested in design and interior decoration and sometimes go through these magazine buying spurts, which, for the most part have left me unsatisfied. Almost everything feels incredibly formal even when it patently tries to be "modern", "rustic" or some other genre.

In Design*Sponge the book, the apartments you see are mostly "believable" - I can believe real people inhabit these spaces. There are salvaged pieces of furniture, thrift store objects, IKEA pieces and a lot of DYI.

About half the book is devoted to "Sneak Peaks": 2-4 pages photo spreads of homes and the other half is devoted to DIY projects, basics and floral arrangements. I love Amy Merrick's floral work (Design*Sponge editor) and her blog.

This is a great book to turn to for inspiration. And because it is so visually rich, I always notice something new each time I look at it: a new colour, pattern or an original way to display or organize.

I think anyone interested in design would love this book.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Clare Turlay Newberry

Clare Turlay Newberry(1903-1970) is a wonderful artist I recently discovered. She became famous for her cat illustrations and TIME Magazine once said she was "the best cat artist since the Egyptians".

It's impressive that Newberry mostly finished her drawings in one go - putting brush to paper and immediately achieving a finished portrait. Her colour palette and technique I find very reminiscent of Japanese drawings. But her ability to capture feline expression and poise stems, clearly, from a deep affection for cats.

Funnily enough I had first, without knowing, admired her art in this awesome tattoo featured on the pet site Pawesome. Then, when I got the book "Mittens" it took me a few days to realize where I had seen that kitten before...

Many of Newberry's books are only available second hand and some cost a pretty penny. However, "Marshmallow" and "April's Kittens" are still in print. Occasionally you might also find a print for sale.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Cecil Aldin

Just recently I found out about two great artists. One is Cecil Aldin (1870-1935) a visual chronicler of British countryside whose dog portraits became very famous and highly collectible. A very nice biography of Aldin can be found here.

Some of Aldin's more popular titles are still in print and I got "The Rascal: Episodes in the Life of a Bulldog Pup", "A Dog Day" and "Puppy Dogs' Tales". Also in print is the classic "Sleeping Partners" in which Aldin depicts his two dogs (an Irish Wolfhound named Micky and a Bull Terrier called Cracker) attempting to share a small sofa in positions of (seemingly) increasing discomfort.

Anyone who loves dogs and illustration will surely adore these small books. Cecil Aldin is particularly adept at portraying the puppy teens, that time, which in some dogs seems to go on forever, (yes, I'm talking to you Dixie) when every waking minute seems to be spent contemplating some deed that will have have you mop/ baby wipes /dog shampo in hand in no time.

His drawings of Sealyham Terriers are my absolute favourite. There aren't any on these three books but there are some prints available online if a little on the expensive side. An adorable breed - how incredible to think they are endangered.

Monday, February 06, 2012

"O Comboio Nocturno para Lisboa" - Pascal Mercier

Not much going on as far as reading is concerned...

Read "O Comboio Nocturno para Lisboa"(Night Train to Lisbon) as the year ended and Pascal Mercier's prose seems to have spoiled more mundane readings for me.

A book that manages to compile much of modern Portuguese history, which I, for one, tend to sometimes forget was incredibly tragic and harrowing, and create a complete philosophy in the shape of one of the most enigmatic and simultaneously magnetic fictional characters ever put to page, Amadeu de Prado.

We meet Prado through our protagonist, Raimund Gregorius, a schoolteacher in Bern who has spent most of his life buried behind books written in Latin and Hebrew. A chance encounter is all it takes - the apparently comfortable life of this middle aged divorcé is thrown into disarray after a casual meeting with a crying, Portuguese girl whose few words somehow spark an interest in an unknown language.

A visit to a book store puts a mysterious vanity press book into the hands of Gregorius: long winded meditations on several topics by a Portuguese physician who lived through the years of Salazar's dictatorship. Add a couple of books on grammar and suddenly, and completely out of character, he is boarding a night train to Lisbon, a city he has never visited.

Because luck has to favour intrepid gambles such as this, our increasingly hesitant protagonist begins almost at once to meet key figures who will help him navigate a strange city and, even more importantly, to slowly begin to make sense out of the puzzle that is Amadeu de Prado: a spiritual man who rejects organized religion and a natural philosopher and writer thrown into the path of medicine by his crippled father, a judge who, to his son's embarrassment, never spoke out against the dictatorship. Because of a tragic episode where he saves the life of a known henchman of the regime, Prado too is looked down upon by his once adoring patients - yet secretly, he collaborates with the resistance.

Slowly though, a doting older sister, a resistance brother, a former teacher and others seem to help Gregorius make sense of Prado. Or do they? Each seems to have met a different man... And so Mercier sends Gregorius and all his readers on an enthralling meditation on life, personality, choices, paths not taken and other conundrums.

Slightly over-melancholic at times the narrative holds the reader's attention through its sense of impending discovery. Will we ever get a sense of who Prado really was? Or is the answer in the first page where a few lines from Pessoa make an appearance?

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Birdology" Sy Montgomery

Although I waited anxiously to read Sy Montgomery’s book “Birdology: Adventures With Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks and Hummingbirds” I have to admit I wasn’t that impressed when I first finished it. But months passed and I went back to it – first to re-read the chapter on hummingbird rehabilitation, then the one on chickens then the one on hawking…and now I’m sure I’ll be going back to this book often.

I think I was fully expecting something epic such as “Journey of the Pink Dolphins”, “Search for the Golden Moon Bear” or “Spell of the Tiger” a full-on immersion expedition, intense, exotic and emotional. But “birdiness” is not a conveniently packed, uniform quality, nor is it located anywhere specific – you might go to New Zealand to see a particular bird but you can also see a particular bird out your window. In effect birds are incredibly diverse from pre-historic looking predators to something so common as to be invisible such as a pigeon; they might elicit feelings of tenderness in the form of a baby hummingbird, or of moral uneasiness in the shape of a hunting falcon or a highly intelligent parrot kept as a pet.

With this in mind “Birdology” assumes the perfect shape with its self-contained snapshot chapters that each address not only a particular species but also a more generic characteristic of birds. As weird as it might sound it’s a book that I love now even though I thought it was only o.k. when I first read it almost seven months ago.

"Kraken" Wendy Williams

I had been meaning to read “Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid” ever since I first saw it. But it after reading Sy Montgomery’s brilliant article on octupuses for Orion magazine and seeing Wendy Williams book listed as a suggested reading I had to order it right away.

And it is an amazing book. Packed with astounding information on these amazing cephalopods (and also octuposes and cuttlefish) that will make anyone realize just how incredible they are. While their physiology is so alien-like (three hearts, blue blood, capable on changing color) scientists have also found incredible similarities with human beings namely in the structure of their eyes and neurons. It was truly startling to learn of the many medical breakthroughs that have been based on research carried out on squid. Future treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s will most likely owe something to these animals.

And yet they remain enigmas – do they think or communicate in ways we might fathom? Or did their brain structure and invertebrate body (not to mention their marine environment) cause them to evolve a relationship with the world and each other that our brains, so tightly wound inside our skulls will never be able to glimpse? It seems indisputable that there is “something” there, even if we try to stay away from loaded terms such as intelligence and conscience.

“Kraken” will fascinate anyone interested in natural history, science, animals and the sea. Wendy Williams has written a book that has not only a perfect rhythm but also a perfect length – and doesn’t shy away from the fact that there is still so much we don’t know about squid (and also doesn’t hide the immense amount of squid dissection needed for scientific research- which is the “slightly disturbing” part, I guess).

Any reader, even acquainted only with cephalopods in the form of lunch, will come away with a newfound respect for these creatures and maybe more importantly, a desire to know more.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Feel Better Little Buddy" Julia Segal

I guess "Feel Better Little Buddy: Animals with casts" is primarily aimed at children who have broken a leg or arm and need reassurance that a cast does not make you a monster, or something. But most people who get the book are probably pet-cute-junkies such as myself.

Just what is this obsession with charming animals sporting hats, or casts and quizzical looks? A symptom of end-of-days malaise? Misdirected brooding instinct? A side effect of enormous cupcake consumption?

Oh well, I'm sure some harried grad student is about to drop a Phd on the "Semiotics of Cute: Childlessness, Infantilization and Recession", that will shed light on this enigmatic phenomenon.

"Somewhere Towards the End" Diana Athill

What’s it like being an old woman? Well, in the benefit of full disclosure the answer to that question is not the primary reason why I got “Somewhere Towards the End”. I was actually won over by the first paragraph where Diana Athill professes a love of black pugs but sadly realizes that at 89 years old it wouldn’t be fair to get a new puppy. I decided to read the book on the strength of that musing, such is my faith in the discerning world-views of pug connoisseurs. And am glad I did, because this memoir-essay is fascinating for anyone interested on the exceptionally lucid ramblings of an almost nonagenarian on love, sex, illness, death and friendship.

As soon as I realized Athill was a non god-fearing, childless woman I became more interested in her views on old age: don’t we end our days clutching rosaries and cursing our decision not to procreate? What is a woman’s life without faith and babies (and faith in babies)? Well, it turns out that a life without either (nor money – for it turns out the other thing I share with Athill is the absence of a savings account) can be, in the immortal words of Maude Lebowski “a natural, zesting enterprise” (Maude, was of course referring to sex, something Athill also found zesty until she didn’t and had no problem saying so to her partner - nor with his continued activity with others).

Working into her seventies, gardening, painting, friends and family – and the odd lover – kept Athill very much alive and kicking at an age where women are supposed to be, at most, doting grandmothers. Even taking into account that her occupation as a literary editor is probably a lot more intellectually demanding and fulfilling than most, one has to applaud her spirit.

She is, however, very candid in stating that she can’t help her personality any more than a pessimist can and that her mainly positive outlook might simply be innate, but I believe that most people fall somewhere between the extremes, and especially for women, role models who enjoy old age might go a long way into putting any fears to rest (fears that might loom over us long before actual age sets in).

While not all of us can boast a spectacular record of longevity (Athill’s female relatives have often lived into their nineties, including her mother) we can still take a lot from “Somewhere Towars the End”. Indeed the skills of not taking things too seriously, of enjoying deeply that which we can still do, of seeing our flaws more clearly and yet, being kinder and more understanding with ourselves, would be precious at any stage of life.

I also appreciated that Athill isn’t one of those (hypocrites? zealots?) who claim that you should just stop whining and keep your head down. She does understand that some people get a rotten deal in their life circumstances:

“I can speak only for, and to, the lucky. But there are more of them than one at first supposes, because the kind of fortune one enjoys or suffers, does not come only from outside oneself. Of course much of it can be inflicted or bestowed on one by others, or by things such as a virus, or climate, or war, or economic recession; but much of it is built into one genetically, and the greatest good luck of all is built-in resilience.”

In short the best thing one can wish for is not money, health or even luck – being a born optimist is a better deal than any of that. What about the rest of us? Well, I guess we’ll have to fake it, ‘till we make it.

If there is a woman in your life beset by the age blues, whether she is 25 or 75, “Somewhere Towards the End” might just prove a welcome antidote. It manages to be both unflinching and positive and an absolute treat of a book.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Sketchbook From Southern France" Sara Midda

Another beautiful book of illustrations by Sara Midda.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Bird-keeping and Birdcages: A History" Sonia Roberts

A quaint little book, “Bird-keeping and Birdcages: A History” was published in 1972, and is probably more interesting for its black and white illustrations and photos than for its historical research. Excluding the first chapter which deals with “The Ancient World” and travels from biblical times to the medieval age in about five pages and the second “Renaissance Exoticism and After” which has some titbit information on western European countries, Sonia Roberts' book mainly deals with British history and the rise of its bird fancy - and is more assured of its facts when it does so -, especially concerning small species such as canaries and, later, budgies.The rest of the world and its “simple societies” are taken care of with a mention on the first page.

However, this book provides a series of interesting vignettes on bird-keeping from Ancient Egypt to our days and is the only book I know of that also addresses the evolution of bird-cages and aviaries and understands that they can be important cultural and artistic objects on their own.

I do wish someone would write a revised and updated version of this History, taking into account archaeological and documentary evidence from the last forty years. After all, I feel Roberts makes an interesting point when she states: “it is reasonable to claim that caged birds were man’s first true pets, for although the dog and cat predate the cage bird as companions of man, they were originally co-opted as assistants in hunting and vermin control respectively”.
Are you there Tim Birkhead, Marina Belozerskaya and Louise Robbins?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"The Fox in the Cupboard" - Jane Shilling

I own a small, modern imitation of an antique clock which in I bought in my early teens because I loved the illustration it features: a rider in a red jacket, jumping a fence and three running hounds in the foreground all set in a bucolic landscape. Later, when I realized there was such a thing as fox-hunting and that this was unmistakably a representation of it (despite there being no fox in the picture) I was quite embarrassed by it. After reading “The Fox in the Cupboard” I went and got the broken, little plastic thing back from where it was hiding – fact is I quite still like that image for all it suggests to me: a welcoming, unthreatening countryside, horses and dogs and, why not? red jackets. As with Jane Shilling’s book it features no cruelty or violence and evokes a world that, as an adult, I still dream of being granted entrance to.

Jane Shilling’s “The Fox in the Cupboard” is certainly a book that left a deep impression, a memoir that enveloped me in an almost dream-like stupor while I wandered its pages and followed the author into the world of horses and hounds. There is an almost poetic rhythm to this book, the chapters on the first horse-riding lessons as an adult, interspersed with childhood memories, adult musings and first-hand accounts of hunts, horse-riding excursions and an episode on buying fox-hunting apparel which is straight out of a fairy tale, if in fairy tales girls ever chose clothes based on function as well as beauty.

There are some mildly frustrating passages mostly courtesy of Shilling’s (female) riding instructor who is not shall we say a very tactful or comforting person (and which coupled with the even worse description of female instructor’s in Lynn Reardon’s “Beyond the Homestretch” has me scared stiff of women riding teachers). I sometimes wondered how much more abuse Shilling was going to take from the woman (quite a bit). There is also a rambling chapter on the history of the hunt – who did what for the first time and whatnot, that has its interesting bits but felt a bit too long.

On more than one occasion Shilling states that she will never belong in the fox-hunting or even horse-riding crowd: to her everything feels artificial and must be thought out and carried out with enormous effort, while everyone else who has learned how to ride at an early age is at ease with the body language of horses, the labyrinth of tack and the lay of the land where fox hunting takes place. However there is something to be said of being an outsider (at least I hope there is) and certainly this sensitive account could never have come from someone brought up among the horses and hounds. Here we see everything through the eyes of the newly anointed – we feel with the author the challenge of being admitted into a closed off, highly ritualized endeavor: it is daunting, nerve-wrecking and sometimes downright embarrassing being the new adult in the gang, but on the other hand it keeps you from taking it all too seriously and allows you to recognize some pretty funny stuff going on while everyone is busy being proper (or properly drunk if you are witnessing a Hunt Ball).

My mother once asked me why on earth I would want to learn how to ride since I couldn’t possibly keep a horse (it was a good question and I still haven’t learned how to ride). Once you are learning it seems inevitable that you must do something with that knowledge – a horse after all, is not a bicycle, it needs to be exercised, challenged even humored – jumping and whatever that other thing when people dress up is called, or fox hunting seem perfectly adequate ways to keep a horse happy.

However, writing about “The Fox in the Cupboard” is a lot more difficult than enjoying it as a reader which is comparatively easy: try as I might to avoid it (and I did) I keep stumbling on the ethics of the whole thing. It must be said that there are no scenes of the actual killing of the fox by the hounds in the book and if I remember correctly the author describes seeing a fox once. Most of the memoir is concerned with the process of learning how to ride as an adult and the social aspects and rituals of fox-hunting. I never felt that Shilling was using her memoir as some sort of apologia of hunting but she did convince me that as far as animal cruelty goes there are far worse things going on in the world. To make matters more complicated for non-British readers there is also the fact that vocal pro and con opinions on fox hunting are deeply immersed in economic and social history and are sometimes as little concerned with the fate of that single fox as she is invisible to the majority of riders from start to finish.

To go down that endless road though, would really detract from the enjoyment of this singular memoir. To the reticent reader I would compare “The Fox in the Cupboard” with a painting featuring a hunting scene that would capture your imagination: it won’t convince you to go out shooting hares with bow and arrow (I hope) but the appreciation of it will enrich your mind.

Books of 2011

His Dark Materials– Philip Pullman
Once Upon a Time in the North - Philip Pullman
Into the beautiful North – Luis Alberto Urrea
The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver
The Hearts of Horses – Molly Gloss

Half-Broke Horses – Jeannette Walls
Un Lieu Uncertain – Fred Vargas
The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger - Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston

Yoga School Drop-Out – Lucy Edge
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why it's so Hard to Think Straight About Animals – Hal Herzog
Dog Walks Man: A Six-legged Odyssey – John Zeaman
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance – Edmund De Waal
Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
Needled to Death – Maggie Sefton
Sink Trap – Christy Evans
Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

Birdology: Adventures with Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks, and Hummingbirds – Sy Montgomery
My Driver – Maggie Gee
The Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-And-Rescue Dog – Susannah Charleson
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale – Michael Holman

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them – Donovan Hohn
Les Annèes Douces 1&2 – Jiro Taniguchi
Tortoise – Peter Young
A Sombra do Vento (The Shadow of the Wind) – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Court of the Air – Stephen Hunt
O Jogo Do Anjo (The Angel's Game) - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Great Penguin Rescue – Dyan DeNapoli
Bossypants – Tina Fey

Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
Beyond the Homestretch: What I’ve Learned from Saving Racehorses – Lynn Reardon

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade – Christopher Benfey
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs
The Fox in the Cupboard: A Memoir – Jane Shilling

Watership Down – Richard Adams
Playing with the Grown-Ups – Sophie Dahl
Graveminder – Melissa Marr
White Cat – Holly Black
The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

Somewhere Towards the End – Diana Athill

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The Story of Sushi" - Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice

Tell you what: I don’t know when I’ll be eating sushi again. No, I didn’t learn anything disgusting about it while reading Trevor Corson’s “The Story of Sushi” – except maybe the correct way to prepare an octopus, which seemed unnecessarily cruel. It’s more like I learned everything I wanted to know about sushi (and then some) and now feel no need for it. This book must be what they call “definitive” because I certainly have trouble imagining why I would read about sushi ever again. In a roundabout way, this is actually a compliment.

“The Story of Sushi” not only delves extensively on the historical birth and evolution of what we came to know as sushi, it also follows a sushi chef class in a Californian school/sushi bar. Additionally, it also tells the tale of how this Japanese dish conquered America and the rest of the Western World.

In the last five years sushi bars have made the step from ubiquitous to ridiculous – there is nary a place where sushi is unavailable and mind you I’m not in New York or anything and I’m in walking distance of at least four sushi restaurants. It is so readily available it is almost impossible to believe that not that many years ago it was kind of weird to eat raw fish.

By focusing on a young girl attending the sushi academy, Corson, cleverly chooses a character most of us can empathize with: someone with no ties to Asian culture, someone who didn't grow up in this tradition (or in any cooking tradition, for that matter), she could be any one of us, someone who likes sushi because it tastes fresh and clean yet feels exotic, but has no idea of the difficult preparation process of those cute nigiri or rolls. Alongside Kate we witness how frustrating it is to master so many techniques and information in so little time (traditional sushi apprenticeship went on for years, before students could do more than prepare the rice).

Because Corson is interested in marine biology, there is also a lot of information on the different fish that were traditionally used in sushi and how their popularity has changed over time. It will probably not be surprising to find out that fish (such as salmon) and rolls favored in America are not that popular in Japan.

More surprising to the reader will be the fact that sushi bar culture in Japan, has always been, and to some degree still is, a guy thing. Single women were not welcomed in these establishments and female sushi chefs unheard of. Men come in, sit at the bar, drink sake and eat some nigiri. How ironic is it that sushi bars are now one of the preferred spots for city girls to grab a bite?

If there is something about sushi that has your curiosity piqued then the answer will be here. Corson even provides the reader with a sushi etiquette-guide-to-not-looking-like-a-total-redneck-at-the-sushi-bar (my words, not the author’s). While it is very interesting I think sushi bars will definitely be different in America and Europe than what they are in Japan (for one, women are welcome) and that their continuing popularity will definitely be tied with how comfortable people feel there. While Japan is a nation where ritual plays an important part even in seemingly innocuous tasks, westerners privilege feeling at ease even while striving to be original.

It will be interesting to see what happens to sushi in the next twenty, thirty years. Already, most sushi chefs aren’t Japanese, and most restaurant owners know little about its history except that sushi is it, right now. Will it go the way of Chinese food or follow some original path (maybe everyone will start doing rolls at home)? In either case “The Story of Sushi” is the definitive book on this not-so-exotic-anymore treat for the foreseeable future.

"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" - Jennifer 8. Lee

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

For non-American readers the revelations in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” will probably come as less of a shock, since, for most Europeans (the uber-sophisticaded world travellers excluded) the first image of Chinese food (and more recently sushi) probably came from watching a random American TV show or movie.

As I followed Jennifer 8. Lee’s delicious chronicles I wasn’t particularly astounded to find out that, in China, fortune cookies (which by the way, are very uncommon in Europe) are not known, and that the most popular Chinese food dishes in America, such as General Tso’s Chicken, Beef and Broccoli and Chow Mein, were creations of Chinese chefs specifically engineered to suit the American palate, favorite ingredients and presentation.

I was surprised however, to find out that fried ice-cream – one of the most popular Chinese desserts in Portugal – was only found by the author in Italy. In fact, as Lee explains, traditional Chinese gastronomy is not known for its sweets. But the Chinese, brilliant at meeting the culinary expectations of different cultures, must have soon found out that, especially in southern Europe, dessert is almost mandatory!

Growing up, I always heard that food in China had almost no similarities with what I ate in Chinese restaurants (something I only started doing quite late, since my family wasn’t big on restaurants or ethnic food – unless you count my mom’s homemade lasagna or pizza), but it’s still fascinating to follow Lee’s explorations in search of the roots of the “Chinese” in Chinese-American food.

But “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” also offers interesting sociological stories courtesy of Chinese food, such as the age-old relationship between American Jews and Chinese restaurants, the emergence of the first home-delivery systems, and the sad plight of contemporary Chinese immigrants. Impossible not be shocked at the amount most Chinese pay (upwards 50.000 thousand dollars) in order to endure months, sometimes years, of grueling travel so they can be afforded the privilege of ringing our western doorbells and hand us our sweet-and-sour pork.

So, where did the fortune cookie originate? Well, you can find out that fun fact by popping over to Wikipedia right now. But Lee’s book gives the reader a lot more to ponder: even in small western capitals such as Lisbon, eating the ethnic food du jour (nowadays, mostly sushi, to the point that Chinese restaurants seem to have disappeared or recast as nippon counterparts) is the mark of a certain urbanite hipsterism - it signals sophistication and a sense of adventure. Like our cheap t-shirts, however, there is always a hidden cost, and finally what we end up eating is not as original as we might like to think – “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” will provide any reader with food for thought.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Leviathan or, The Whale" - Philip Hoare

“Leviathan” is a whale of a book. Ah. Obvious I know, but it is four hundred something pages long. Impossible not to think Philip Hoare was going for some sort of “whose is longest” contest with the mythical whale book “Moby-Dick”. Unfortunately, length does not equal reading pleasure and Leviathan proved to be a somewhat frustrating experience.

Whales might be the closest thing to aliens living right here on Earth. Their sheer size makes them incomprehensible. Their longevity doesn’t much help either. Their mysterious communications skills hint at a complex mind, wholly foreign to our terrestrial understanding. Not only do they move through a fantastic realm of deep waters but they also cover amazing distances, yet they surface, to breathe through lungs and share our mammalian heritage.

“Leviathan” started on a promising note of personal narrative. However it soon lost me in subsequent chapters. Halfway through I was close to giving up on the book, but decided to read the last two chapters where the author goes to the Portuguese islands of the Azores to track its whaling history and provide closure to his fear of deep waters by swimming with whales. I was hooked again. This is what it’s about. This was what the book should have been about all along: the fear and fascination these giants elicit.

I went back and found the second half of the book much more pleasant, now focused in British whaling history, Antarctic exploration, the shift from the economical to the scientific exploration of whales, the first efforts to protect them and the politic and economic factors that combined to hinder it.

So, what was it about the first half of the book that made me dislike it? In two words: Herman Melville. It felt like Hoare was paralysed by the spectrum of “Moby-Dick” and its author, constantly compelled to refer back to it and dwelling altogether too much in Melville’s biography. As the author himself explains, “Moby Dick” might be about a whale but it’s about a lot of other things – chiefly about writing a great masterpiece capable of paying homage to the pessimistic worldview of Nathaniel Hawthorne with whom Melville became supremely infatuated.

Plainly put, to start a contemporary book on whales taking Melville as a guide felt unoriginal. The chapters where the author tours ancient whaling ports of New England felt dead on the water, and taking into mind that later in the book Hoare goes back to the history of whaling at a much earlier date (in Europe) it felt like the chronology was wrong. Why start in the middle?

The other problem I had with “Leviathan” is that there is too much of it. Look, you know that scene in “Wonderboys” where the Katie Holmes’s character has just read Professor Tripp’s mammoth of a book and says “I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all.” Not that I’m saying Philip Hoare wrote this “under the influence” but I could hear the book crying for an iron-fisted editor. There are so many little pieces of information and little conducting line to guide the reader along – it’s more like fighting against drowning at times. For instance, Percy Stammwitz, a character deserving of his own biography, appears in chapter III, as the author makes an historical detour of a few pages through the building of the huge whale model in London’s Natural History Museum. How I’m I supposed to remember him two hundred pages and some hundreds of different historical episodes, characters and facts later, as the author picks up his story again, now to follow his travels as he collected specimens worldwide for the museum?

There is an large interlude about Henry David Thoreau, in which his interest in whales is chronicled, the point of which is a connection between the beach he once walked and whale fossils discovered in the same place, seemingly an introduction to the palaeontology of whales, but actually not, because the author only spends a few paragraphs on the subject before going on to the next thing: myths of sea serpents. Do you get the picture? Ok, if you look hard enough there are references to whales everywhere (but you don’t need to cram every single one in the book, dude). We get it; but to say “Walden” is “a corollary to Moby-Dick” stinks of trying too hard to prove a point.

It almost feels as though there are several books here, all jumbled up. One about the history of commercial whaling, another about the whale as object of scientific study and later, conservation icon and a final one about the natural history of the animal, strictly speaking (which is definitely the shorter part). Now, all of these might be combined of course, but in Leviathan somehow it didn’t really come together. And to top it all, there is the personal narrative of the author, which starts the book in such an auspicious note but, somewhat like a whale, surfaces seldom and then erupts, unexpectedly into a two page detailed account of the author’s mother’s death. I felt embarrassed to, without warning, be plunged into a deeply intimate moment. I can’t imagine why Hoare felt it belonged in these pages.

To be fair, from chapter IX onwards I did feel a renewed cohesion in the book (but maybe influenced by the fact that I had read the final chapters first). In the end there was a lot of interesting bits of information but the reading of “Leviathan” was more of a trial than anything else. I wouldn’t say she blows (get it? hilarious) but either you’re completely nuts about whaling or you should probably sit this one out.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog – Hugh Warwick

Why do we think of hedgehogs as “cute”? I mean, they are not soft or cuddly and they rather tend to smell (since I have never met one face to face, I have to take the author’s word for it – and I do). But somehow they just evoke the warmth and comfort of a toasty home while it’s cold outside. Maybe it’s the hibernation thing.

In my case I think I can trace it to a 1980s children’s book about a little elf girl named Victoria Plum and a hedgehog (“Victoria and the Prickly Hedgehog”), and according to author children’s books are key to the “cut-ification” of an animal that for centuries was considered little more than a pest. In fact, the one particular book the author believes changed the public image of hedgehogs in Britain (and the world) is Beatrix Potter’s 1905 “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle”, whose title character is a hedgehog washerwoman.

“A Prickly Affair” follows Warwick’s personal history with hedgehogs which starts with an academic assignment and grows into a long term serious relationship not only with the prickly critters but also with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

We follow the author as he tracks hedgehogs on freezing nights, shares hedgehog lore and history and gets involved with hedgehog protection because, incredibly, there are some people who (wait for it, wait for it…) do not like hedgehogs! And those people who happen to be bird lovers (who really do tend to get a little hysterical and would probably exterminate every cat, ferret, hedgehog etc in the world if they could manage) would rather shoot (yes, shoot!) hedgies than find out if they even have anything to do with the dwindling bird populations.

I also was very curious about reading this book to find out whether the author, who loves the critters, had any as pets and what he thought about keeping them as pets. Now, I was never going to have one, because I will never feed a living thing to a living thing (and hedgies need their bugs) but I keep seeing them in pet sites and was genuinely curious. I knew the pet hedgehogs commonly kept are of the African variety but I didn’t know what that meant (they are smaller and don’t smell as much). I now believe Hugh Warwick is on a mission to keep us all from pet hedgehog ownership and his cunning plan is delineated in the chapter “A Brief Interlude at the International Hedgehog Olympic games”: by exposing the reader to excesses of devoted (to put it euphemistically) hedgie ownership, the author has pretty much insured that his readers will never keep a hedgehog as a pet (can you guess which country is the host of said games?).

This book sort of spoiled my vacation reading list because I read it first and knew I hadn’t brought along anything else I would enjoy as much, so that was a problem. But I forgive it because not only was it the highlight of my summer reading it also has the cutest little hedgehog illustrations.

Three Books on Tortoises

Timothy; or; Notes of an Abject Reptile: a novel – Verlyn Klinkenborg
Lonesome George: The Life and Times of a Conservation Icon – Henry Nichols
Timothy the Tortoise: The Remarkable Story of the Nation’s Oldest Pet

It all started with Klinkenborg’s book: I must have bought it some two years back and started reading it some five times. Each time I gave up in the very first pages. Then one day I started it and read the whole thing. Oh, it’s a difficult book all right. It doesn’t give you an inch. You have to pry it open, re-read passages constantly, use the glossary (which I only noticed was there half-way through) and even gasp! use the dictionary, only to not find what you were looking for.

But, it’s a beautiful book. Ethereal, a philosophical dissertation, a study of Man and its incomprehensible ways by an animal considered by most unthinking, slow, stupid.

Our guide is a tortoise named Timothy, an actual, historical character (his shell is kept in London’s Natural History Museum). Gilbert White, British naturalist of the XVIII Century famous for his “The Natural History of Selborne” in which he chronicles the natural cycles of his home county, adopted the Greek tortoise Timothy after his owner passed away. A man so in tune with every bird migration and sprouting bud, seems to have been less loving and observant of his unusual pet - his is the expression “abject reptile”.

Here, however, Klinkenborg decides to give voice to Timothy and allow him to write his own “Natural History of Selbourne”. More an anthropologist than a natural historian, for he is a foreigner and both weather and custom feel out of place to him. Well, actually, more of an alien creature, for he is condemned to a life a solitude without ever meeting one of his kind. Condemned also, because of his longevity, to witness death often.

For Timothy the frailty of human skin which must be clothed and then housed is a source of wonder, maybe even some scorn: we are beings naturally unfit to live in Nature and must make up for it by our wits: “No creature excels the human in matters of nidification”.

“Notes…” is a very rewarding book, but I think you have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. It is very contemplative in tone with a lot of XVIII century rural vocabulary, and I believe most readers will probably have to make an initial effort to pierce its outer carapace. However, inside lies a very wise, friendly beast whose company will almost certainly improve our condition.

“Lonesome George” is the kind of book I love. Centered in the creature that has been labeled “the rarest animal in the world” it digresses into conservation, cloning, the politics of tourism vs conservation vs local economy and of course, Darwin, for George lives in the Galápagos Islands.

He is the last known Geochelone nigra abingdoni or Pinta Island Tortoise, first discovered in 1971, and the book traces both efforts to find out for sure if George really is lonesome, (he may not be) as well as various strategies to attempt procreation (with turtles of nearby islands of similar genetic make-up) which have not yielded results until now.

How did turtles even get to the Galápagos? And why are there so many different species? Did they arrive at different times or spread later through the islands? How has human hand influenced the distribution and extermination of turtles in the islands? Can individual animals like Lonesome George really make a difference in conservation efforts by influencing public opinion? What are some near-extinct species that have come back from the brink of annihilation and what were the techniques used by scientists to accomplish this? And can havens of biodiversity like the Galápagos really find balance between being scientific stations for (mostly) foreign scientists, tourist destinations for (let’s face it) the wealthy and a place where economic survival is possible for native inhabitants?

These are some of the questions Henry Nicholls explores and really, how can you not be interested in finding out the answers?

I got “Timothy the Tortoise” because it was cheap and well, I was in a tortoise kind of place. While it doesn’t really focus solely on its protagonist, I did find the book an enjoyable read. Timothy (so named after Gilbert White’s Timothy) serves as the guide to the British aristocratic Courtenay family as the author follows the genealogical tree using Timothy’s keeper’s and recounts of important family events and memories of the tortoise.

Because it actually chronicles an epoch when British aristocracy and its way of life became redundant I found it quite interesting, though really, there isn’t much turtle lore here.

On a quirky end note, both Timothy’s were actually found out to be females…

Three Firsts in Cozy Series

Hounding the Pavement (A Dog Walker Mystery) – Judi McCoy
The Missing Ink (A Tattoo Shop Mystery) – Karen E. Olson
One Bad Apple (An Orchard Mystery) – Sheila Connolly

The cozy mystery genre is getting a little crowded. I could probably spend the next three months reading nothing but the first numbers of different series. I suppose the measure of success might be whether you go for the second in the series or not. After all, (most) cozy mysteries do not set out to shake the foundations of your world or otherwise offend you. They tread a difficult line between quirky and comforting, each with its own little recipe that might work for some and not others.

While each and every one of these was an enjoyable read, I’d still have to say I’d rather take on a different series rather than proceed to number two. Maybe I’m getting a little bit jaded but none of these came close to the “Mantra for Murder Mysteries” or even “Knitting Mysteries”.

Sheila Connolly’s book though, does have a slightly more “grown-up” tone about it. Lots of serious information about home renovation and a nice “Gilmore Girls” New England feel about it. Still, for some reason I failed to connect with the protagonist Meg Corey. Actually, I think I know why: her ex-boyfriend (who is the murder victim) is such an obvious Wall Street wannabee, such an absolute greedy, arrogant, awful person I had to have my doubts about Meg. Who would date such a creep, let alone keep seeing him for six months?!

Brett Kavanaugh is a pretty unlikely name, one I kept forgetting throughout “The Missing Ink”. Brett is a New Jersey girl who relocated to Las Vegas where tattooing is a more profitable business. Karen E. Olson gives the reader a lot of information on the art of putting needle to skin, but again I was lost as our one-of-a kind protagonist (who has some Monet on her arm, ‘cause she went to art school and is not just some tattoo bimbo) fell for a Vegas hotel manager complete with tie and British accent…oy. I kept getting the names of the missing girls confused, too which didn’t help. Overall a very enjoyable pool-side read, but again, don’t count me as a fan for the rest of the series.

Ellie Engleman’s Dog Walker Mystery was also a nice read. It gets funny at times since the author, Judi McCoy, is not afraid to get a little, shall we say, explicit, in the sex scenes which gave the book a Harlequin-esque tone at times. The psychic connection with dogs doesn’t read as ridiculous as I first thought (oh right, I forgot to say, Ellie can communicate with pooches), since the author doesn’t overuse the gimmick, but still…it’s the fact that the dogs talk back that gets a little bit strange…I mean here is a recent divorcee who talks to her itty-bitty dog and walks other people’s itty-bitty dogs (Ellie has a no big dogs policy)…plus she can walk four dogs and eat an ice-cream at the same time, and I know for a fact that is impossible to accomplish.

As for the mysteries themselves “Hounding the Pavement” had the most easy to guess solution, followed by “One Bad Apple”. As for the “The Missing Ink” the whole thing was so convoluted I can’t even remember the ending clearly, anymore. Whether that’s good or bad…

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sara Midda "In and Out of the Garden"

Gardening tips, recipes and lore, beautifully illustrated.