Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Gluten Free Revolution

By Jax Peters Lowell
Henry Holt     2015
632 pages     Healthy Living
The Shortlist

The Gluten Free Revolution has everything—and I do mean everything—you need to know about building a gluten-free life for you and for your family. Lowell says, "Fifteen million Americans follow a gluten-free diet, of which three million, myself included, are gluten-intolerant with documented celiac disease." She goes on to say that there is a $4.2 billion market for gluten free, and it is expected to swell to $6 billion by 2017. 

The Gluten Free Revolution includes rules to follow as you are creating a gluten-free life, recipes to try, and ways to create gluten-free families. One of the most valuable parts of the books are the lists of places to find gluten-free foods, lists of brands that are truly gluten free, and lists of gluten-free restaurants. A whole section has been devoted to gluten-free travel and gluten-free cooking schools. I was especially interested in the section on gluten-free baby food. Another section deals with doctors, medical tests, and benefits for some types of chronic illnesses. Additionally, the book has lots of recipes that look truly delicious.

My sister's children have gone gluten-free and so she has had to revamp both her home and her cottage so that she has gluten-free utensils for both places. I noticed when looking through the book that Jungle Jim's, a great grocery in their Cincinnati area neighborhood, has a gluten-free cooking school. This book, which came from the publicist, is going to go to her. 

If you have gluten intolerant family members, or you think you might be gluten intolerant, this definitely is the book for you. Jax Peters Lowell is in the forefront of the gluten-free movement and one of the creators of the gluten-free diet.  

Jax Lowell's website.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Look Ahead: Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League

A brief note about an event and a book. Today is Rosa Parks birthday, and it is also the launch date of the book Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell. It is the story of the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, and the relationship between two mothers, Hazel and Vida. Originally published as The View from Delphi in 2004, it is being republished by my friend Marly Rusoff and her publishing company, Maiden Lane Press. Many reviewers say that it is a book whose "time has come."

I intended to have the blog posting about the book done before today's launch of the book, but I am only about half way through. I will have a longer posting about the book later in the week.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books   2015
336 Pages      Mystery/Thriller

Rachel's life is a mess. She's divorced, jobless, alcoholic. She gets on the train every morning from her London suburb and wanders the city until work hours are over, when she returns  to the flat she shares with a friend. She can't bear to tell her friend that she has no job. One of the daily train stops is opposite the house that she shared with her husband Tom, who now lives there with his new wife Anna and their baby. Every day she stares at the house where she feels her life disintegrated. She also stares at a neighboring house and fantasizes about the young couple that lives there—creating an entire life scenario for them. When the young wife, Megan, disappears, Rachel realizes that she has important information that must be shared . 

Rachel, however, is not the only unreliable narrator of the enfolding story. Anna tells the story from her point of view, as does Megan. They are not the only unreliable people involved in the story: Rachel's ex-husband Tom as well as Megan's husband Scott may also be unreliable witnesses to the unfolding events. To tell any more of the plot would spoil the fun. 

The emphasis of the The Girl on the Train is on the mysteries that surround the people that we think we know, even our spouses.  The reviewer in the Boston Globe says that "Hawkins emphasizes the parallels among these three ostensibly different women, and close the book with the knowledge that they share—as we might—unexpected affinities with people they pass by each day, those who they see but will never truly know." 

Rachel interjects herself into the lives of the people at that train stop in ways that most people would not do, nor would they think of doing. That doesn't keep the majority of us from fantasizing a bit about what it would be like to live in some other place or some other house or with some other person.  Does that make us unreliable witnesses to the events of our own lives?

On a subway ride in New York City several years ago, I sat next to a young couple who were making out rather voraciously. Frankly, it was pretty disgusting. The man on the other side of the couple couldn't stand it anymore and complained loudly to the young man, who jumped up and yelled threateningly into the face of the complainer. When he finally calmed down, he sat back down and ranted on and on under his breath, until the complaining passenger got off the train. What was fascinating to me was not this scene, which was definitely a bit scary, but the reaction of the woman who was sitting opposite me. She was about my age and must have recognized that I was a tourist. She watched me intently through the entire incident, trying to decipher my reaction to the unfolding scene. She was trying to look at the world through my eyes. What is reality, and what is our perception of reality?

I was reminded of a beautiful mansion on the lake shore in Duluth, my home city. Every time I walked by it as a girl, I pretended that I lived there. The lawn, the gardens, the porches looking over the lake—magnificent.  Then, one night, the owner was murdered by her son-in-law on the main stairway in the house.  Suddenly, the house became a tourist attraction, and the beautiful fantasy became an ugly reality. 

Everyone has compared The Girl on the Train with Gone Girl. I think that they are similar only because of the unreliable narrators. I enjoyed them both, although I think that Gone Girl twisted up my mind a bit more than The Girl on the Train. Read them and see what you think.

The New York Times did a very interesting article about the author, Paula Hawkins.
The Shelf Awareness review which calls The Girl on the Train an "intricate, multilayered psychological suspense debut."
The Boston Globe review.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness

by Sasha Martin
National Geographic     2015
336 Pages     Memoir/Cookbook

"We come with all kinds of 'baggage' and almost none of it fits in our suitcases." 

After a hardscrabble, sometimes tragic, childhood, Sasha Martin settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places. She married and had a baby girl but felt lost as a stay-at-home mother. With a flash of ingenuity, she decided that she would begin a blog in which she cooked a meal from one country of the world each week until she had cooked her way around the world. 195 weeks later, she completed her list, had a giant community party, and signed a book contract with National Geographic. That in a nutshell (no pun intended) is the synopsis of Life from Scratch. The memoir, however, is much more than that. It is a meditation on family and on finding a passion as a way of finding self. 

Life from Scratch is basically divided into two parts. The first part includes Martin's childhood, teen years, and marriage. The second part of the book is about her world cooking adventure and the creation of her blog, Global Table Adventure. Martin is still a young woman, so there is much more to come, we can hope.

Martin's childhood was brutal. Among her memories of that childhood were the foods that her mother cooked. As she remembers the things her mother cooked, she fills in the recreated recipes. Although an eccentric, her mother was/is extremely creative, and she did her best to offer her children some of the advantages of families that had more—she did this primarily through food. For instance, a favorite treat was a German Tree Cake, which was so expensive to make that the family had to save money for weeks in order to create it. Those childhood recipes are in the first part of the book.

Martin lived her teenage years with her mother's friend and her family. The husband of the family worked in Europe, so her teenage years were spent in Europe. Tragedy ultimately separates this source of continuity for Martin just as she begins her college years back in the United States. Some time spent in culinary school leads her to a job in Tulsa where she finally is able to settle down and establish a family of her own. The next batch of recipes come from her European experiences.

And then comes a more peaceful life. Martin is a resilient woman, and when she marries and has a baby, she finds ways to resolve the tragedies of her childhood and youth. She realizes that she had lived an insular life as a way of protecting herself, and now what she wants to do was to create community. This she does through cooking and creating her blog. Having completed her first blog journey around the world, she is currently celebrating holidays from around the world. In some ways, Martin's memoir is The Glass Castle meets Julie and Julia. The story is not new, in other words, but it is written in a very appealing way. I found myself compulsively returning to it.

It could be that the reason I enjoyed the memoir was that no one was eating much except roasted rabbit and deer in the magnetic Station Eleven, which I was reading at the same time. I wonder what people eat in Dystopia. (Oh, I forgot, there are a lot of feasts at the capital in The Hunger Games. Now there would be an interesting cookbook: The Food of the Capital.)

One of my students recently gave me a container of Kebsa seasonings, ground by her mother, and I have been trying to figure out how much to use to flavor rice and chicken. (Kebsa, by the way, is the national dish of Saudi Arabia.) I haven't gotten the balance right yet. Kebsa is as adventurous as my cooking has gotten lately. However, on Saturday night, the family is coming over for Grandpa's spaghetti. Now there's an adventure in eating for you! Several years ago, he put kumquats in the spaghetti and the family has never let him forget it! 

By the way, Global Table Adventure is an outstanding blog, and the recipes are intriguing. I read Life from Scratch on a Kindle, and I have discovered that it isn't very exciting to read recipes on a Kindle. I guess I want the security of the nice tidy format that comes from a standard recipe format. However, if you look at the website, the colorful pictures and explicit directions make all the recipes look very appealing. My guess is that when the book appears in March, it will be gorgeous. I would recommend that you buy the hardcover.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf     2014
352 pages     Fiction

In the near future, a pandemic called Georgia Flu wipes out much of the world's infrastructure, and the remaining people are left with nothing. Small colonies of people survive like pioneers in settlements across the landscape. The particular landscape of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is Michigan, although much of the pre-pandemic activity takes place in Toronto and Los Angeles. However, the setting is immaterial to the plot, because what is left is desolation. 

As a little girl, Kirsten meets a famous actor, Arthur Leander, when she was performing in a production of King Lear in Toronto. It happened to be the night Leander died—right before the Georgia Flu destroys everything Kirsten knows. Twenty years later, she finds herself acting in a Shakespearean theater/musical ensemble called the Traveling Symphony. They are a ragtag group of survivors who travel the coastline of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron entertaining the small villages of survivors. 

The storyline goes from past to present, weaving the motley group of characters together, until plot lines converge at a former airport that serves as home to 300 people, including children born in the years after the calamity. The children know nothing about electricity, cell phones, or even stiletto high heels, but they know a lot about survival. Arthur Leander is the tie that binds all the characters and the artifacts together—that and King Lear and the saying tattooed on Kirsten's arm—"Survival is insufficient."

Unlike many dystopian authors, Mandel is not caught up in a specific genre. Although several reviewers were put off by inconsistencies in the level of dystopia, or the details of survival, or even the science fiction references, all were completely enthralled by Mandel's meditations on the value of life, of happiness, of—dare we say it—joy. Mandel objects to Station Eleven being categorized as science fiction, although it is set in a future time. She sees her novel as literary fiction, and I would have to agree with her. Although there are elements of science fiction and there certainly are dystopian elements, Station Eleven is so reflective and pensive that it defies description. It did remind me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but Station Eleven is more encouraging in the emphasis that the author places on human resiliency and the possibility of a better future. The reviewer in SF Gate says:  "The novel is less horror story than elegiac lament; its pacing is slow and its style understated. Station Eleven is terrifying, reminding us of how paper-thin the achievements of civilization are. But it’s also surprisingly — and quietly — beautiful."

I was particularly struck by the way in which the ordinariness of life is emphasized in Station Eleven. These are people who have lived for 20 years without the niceties of life in the past civilization. They do not even choose to live in abandoned houses. The old life is completely abandoned. One reviewer remarks, "Station Eleven implies that a major collapse might cripple the world, but would not ruin it, nor the people who remain in it." Also significant is the purpose of the Traveling Symphony. They visit the small villages playing music and performing Shakespeare, because that is what people want—that is beauty that they can cling to. 

I wrote an essay about a year ago about why teenagers love dystopian novels in which I mused that perhaps society is preparing itself for an apocalypse. The SF Gate reviewer remarks:  "This is the power of dystopian stories, which remain all the rage this year: They shed light not only on our present anxieties about humanity’s collapse, but on how people act when they’re placed, more or less, in a vacuum." 

As I tramped up and down the familiar Lake Michigan coastline with Kirsten and the Symphony in Station Eleven, I was reminded of something my son told me the day after he and his sister lived through September 11, 2001. He said that all he could think about was that my husband and I would come as close to the city as we could, find them, and drive to the family cottages on Lake Michigan where we would all be safe. 

The SF Gate review.
The New York Times review.