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Posts tagged ‘non-fiction’

A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am totally throwing myself under the nerd-bus here, but I have to admit that I already knew something about most of the concepts in Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I guess that is what a couple of semesters of college physics and a bunch of engineering courses does to a girl. That being said, I am not sure how readable this book would be to someone without a technical background. The book is touted to be written in a way that allows laymen to understand these advanced topics.

The book discusses space and time, the origins of the universe and how our understanding of the concepts has developed over time. Hawking delves into quantum mechanics and also explains the concepts of the Big Bang and what a black hole is. And while the book may indeed be brief at under 200 pages, it is quite dense. I did enjoy how Hawking let his own personality shine through the writing and offered up his own opinions, beliefs and philosophies instead of just having the book read like an objective text book.

 A Brief History of Timehas been shown twice on the television show LOST. It was shown in Ben’s bedroom in the episode “The Man from Tallahassee” and a character was also shown reading it in the episode “Not in Portland”.  I guess those Lostees really like learning about time and the universe.  Based on the recent episodes it would seem that time is definitely a favorite topic of the show’s writers.

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Her Last Death

Her Last Death Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg

 rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often find myself noticing themes and connections between books that I read close to each other. Recently, I went through an inadvertent “teenage girls having inappropriate relations with older men”- phase.  I wasn’t seeking out books on this topic on purpose…it just happened. One of those books was Nabakov’s novel Laughter in the Dark and the other one was the memoir Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg.

In her memoir, Sonnenberg recounts her life from her childhood through adulthood, focusing mostly on her relationship with her drug-addicted, promiscuous, name-dropping, boyfriend-stealing mother, Daphne. Daphne is constantly telling stories of her relationships and encounters with famous and important figures.

Daphne helps her daughter Susanna celebrate her sweet sixteen by giving her her first line of coke. She also tries to push her daughters into having sex.  She constantly shares stories of her sexual exploits with her daughters. Daphne treats her daughters more like they are her friends than her offspring.

Her Last Death is reminiscent of other memoirs about children being raised by less than ideal parents.  I’ve read several other memoirs that fall into this category including Running with Scissors and The Glass Castle.  In my opinion, Her Last Deathdoesn’t quite measure up to either of those. Frankly the book irritated me in some parts. It came across as self-absorbed and Sonnenberg didn’t quite make her descriptions of her experiences engaging and believable in a way that completely draws the reader into her life.  Part of this could have been all of the blind-item-style name dropping.  The writing was very strong in parts but overall was uneven. Sonnenberg does show promise though, and I would pick up something else she wrote if I came across it.

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Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture

Bite Me Bite Me by Fabio Parasecoli

rating: 3 out of 5

Okay, honestly, with a title like “Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture” and a cover that is a bit suggestive with a close-up picture of the cleft of a peach/nectarine, I was at the very least expecting a book that was readable and fun. I was expecting something along the lines of Kitchen Confidential, Fast Food Nation, or Candyfreak— an engaging expose on how food influences and is influenced by pop culture. I mean come on, this is a cover that got me lots of second looks as I read it on the train. Yes folks, I am reading a book, with a big naked butt on the cover.

In the end (ha), “Bite Me” was a  little too academic for my taste. It read like an advanced college text book with lots of works cited and a large bibliography.  Parasecoli obviously put a good deal of research into the book.

In the chapter Tasty Utopias, Parasecoli discusses food and politics in science fiction books and movies. The works he looks at include Orwell’s 1984 and the movie Demolition Man.  Parasecoli analyzes what food & eating means to the characters & societies in these sci-fi works.

Food has played a relevant — even if sometimes almost invisible — role in many sci-fi works. I believe this connection is revealing. Food is an important element in any society, determining many aspects of production, distribution and consumption, and providing fundamental institutions and customs.  It is virtually impossible to isolate food from the social, economic, and political structures of a human group. The act of eating, located between the biological and the symbolic, allows sci-fi authors to analyze a large spectrum of phenomena, often with a certain comic impishness.  Imagination is a fundamental dimension of the style and the content of science fiction, encompassing all aspects of human life.

In other chapters Parasecoli compares breast feeding with vampirism and cannabalism, discusses the influence of food in African American culture,  looks into diet culture especially the Atkins diet, and finally how tourism relates to food.

There were some interesting factoids in the book, but overall it was a bit too dense for leisure reading.  While “Bite Me” might have been a bit of a heavy dish for a casual book club book it would probably be ideal fare for a cultural studies course in college.

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Hands of My Father

A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love by Myron Uhlberg

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Myron Uhlberg’s memoir Hands of My Fathertells of his experiences growing up in Brooklyn, NY in  the 1930’s  and 1940’s.  But, this is not a typical coming of age memoir….both of Uhlberg’s parents were completely deaf. Uhlberg could hear and starting at a very early age that he had to act as a translator between his parents and the hearing world.

My second language was spoken English. I have no memory of learning this language, or at what age, but somehow I did.  And with the acquisition of spoken language, a big part of my childhood ended before it began. As the hearing child of a deaf father, I was expected to perform the daily alchemy of transmuting the silent visual movements of my father’s hands into the sound of speech and meaning for the hearing, and then to perform the magic all over again for him, in reverse, transmuting invisible sound into visible sign.

I found the memoir to be a compassionate  and moving  account of the author’s relationship with his father and the clash Uhlberg felt between an obligation to assist his parents and his desire to have a carefree childhood.  A young Myron learned early about the discrimination the hearing world had against the deaf.  Most people either ignored the deaf or assumed that they were stupid. Myron’s love for his parents and younger brother shines out from the pages of the memoir in a way that isn’t too over the top or cheesy.  There are numerous family photos scattered throughout the book and help draw the reader closer to the family.

I received a free copy of Hands of My Father from GoodReads.com. Myron Uhlberg has authored several children’s books.
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The Language of Baklava

A Memoir The Language of Baklava: A Memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber
rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Several years ago, I read two novels by Diana Abu-Jaber: Arabian Jazz and Crescent. I really enjoyed both books and found them unique from other novels that were out at the time since they focused on the Arab-American experience.  Both books were big hits in the book clubs that I read them in. My friend Amanda still cites Crescent as one of her all-time favorite book club books. In her memoir, The Language of Baklava, Abu-Jaber share her memories of food and family and growing up between cultures.  Abu-Jaber’s father is from Jordan and her mother grew up in America and is of western European stock.

I found the book really interesting from a personal perspective since I am an American of European descent and my husband is from Pakistan. We are definitely a food-centric household. Many of our memories are built around food and we both love to cook.  Our future children may face multiple culture clashes… food-related, tradition-related and definitely religion-related.  Will my kid’s reject the Pakistani food in favor of burgers and fries? Will they have a healthy mix of the foods their mom & dad grew up with?  Will they be embarrassed if they are sent to school with pakoras and kabob sandwiches for lunch?? Will they be unable to resist the lure of bacon and eat dirty, dirty pig?  I’ve steered clear of pork products since I’ve been in a relationship with my husband, but will our kids do the same when they aren’t under the watchful eye of their father.  We plan on raising our kids in America but taking them on many visits to Pakistan so they can learn the language, the traditions, and get to know their family that still lives there.

 Abu-Jaber’s memoir  was funny and insightful as to what it felt like to grow up in such an environment. Her observations about the influence on members of both sides of her family on her life were humourous and heart-felt.

In one chapter, Abu-Jabershares memories of making apple strudel with her Aunt and talking about marriage and children.

 ‘Marry, don’t marry,’ Auntie Aya says as we unfold layers of dough to make an apple strudel.

‘Just don’t have your babies unless it’s absolutely necessary.’

‘How do I know if it’s necessary?’

She stops and stares ahead, her hands gloved in flour. ‘Ask yourself, Do I want a baby or do I want to make a cake? The answer will come to you like bells ringing.’ She flickers her fingers in the air by her ear. ‘For me, almost always, the answer was cake.’

The book is riddled with lots of words of wisdom and big bites of humor.   I loved Abu-Jaber’s writing and wit.  It is obvious she loves her family and the food they congregated over. I tore through this book like a tear through a plate of delicious food. Abu-Jaber made my mouth water in parts and definitely made me want to cook up some Middle Eastern food.

Abu-Jaber has recipes interspersed throughout the chapters. These recipes are related to the memories relayed in the chapter. Some of the recipes are for Jordanian food and others for more American fare.

In the chapter Mixed Grill in the Snow, Diana and her family journey to their relatives’ house for a New Years Eve party.

The adults sit away from the children in the dining room, which frees us to eat as wantonly and barbarically as possible. Ed illustrates how he can fill his entire mouth with roasted zucchini. The juices stain our lips, and we slump and make loud caveman grunts as we chew. We use pieces of bread to push the meat and fire-scorched vegetables from the skewers onto a big communal platter-or right into our mouths.

 This chapter seriously tempted me to drag out our grill and make some kafta kabobs. But… it was a bit too cold and slushy out for that.  Instead I opted to cook an indoor meal of spice-rubbed rack of lamb and mjeddrah/muccedere (rice pilaf), followed up by baklava, of course. You will soon be able to behold my feast as the posts and recipes for what I cooked up are coming soon!

Language of Baklava was the monthly selection for the foodie book club, Cook the Books. Stop by and check out what others think of the book, what they’ve cooked up, and what the next book will be. 

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Low Down

Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood by A. J. Albany

rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Low Down,  A.J. Albany recounts her childhood growing up as the daughter of jazz pianist Joe Albany. A.J. was brought into a life where both of her parents were drug addicts and part of the 1960’s & 1970’s  jazz and poetry scene in Hollywood. Amy Jo (A.J.) was named after her father’s two favorite characters from Little Women in the hope that she would have the best characteristics of each. After A.J.’s mother abandons the family when A.J. is only 5 years old., A.J. and her father move into a hotel on Hollywood Blvd, a place with lots of seedy characters. He drags her to his late night shows in smokey jazz clubs where she meets some jazz legends.   A.J. is more often than not left to fend for herself as her father is often under the influence of heroin.

Albany uses a series of short vignettes to recount the gritty, emotional memories of her childhood. These memories include abuse and exploitation of A.J. by family, friends, and neighbors, yet A.J. tells her story without self-pity.  The beautifully-written, honest memoir makes you wonder at how she survived such a childhood.

It reminded me of other “awful childhood” memoirs along the lines of “The Glass Castle” and “The Liar’s Club”. At under 200 pages, “Low Down” is a quick read full of raw emotion that lets you dive into the underbelly of the Hollywood jazz scene. Some famous folks such as Sinatra, Alan Ginsberg, and Thelonious Monk make cameos in the book.

Now, I am off to see if I can find some of Joe Albany’s music online…

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Talking with my Mouth Full

Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories by Bonny Wolf


rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

 Bonny Wolf works as a food correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. In Talking with My Mouth Full, Wolf shares food memories and stories through a series of essays. It is a charming collection that makes a leisurely read for foodies. Wolf takes us on a nostalgic journey through the United States and its different regional foods. The essays focus more on comfort foods than on haute cuisine you find at upscale restaurants.  There are essays about Bundt cakes, Jell-o, popovers, Texas Barbecue, and Thanksgiving Dinner.

In each essay, Wolf relays her own experiences along with those of her friends and NPR listeners.  Wolf includes one or more recipes with each essay. The recipes are for foods that were mentioned in the essay. The recipes range from a simple recipe for basic toast to recipes for chili and roasted chicken. These are recipes that were passed down in someone’s family, or from friend to friend, or clipped from a newspaper.

As Wolf talks about her  folder of recipes clipped from magazines, I thought of my own folder of recipes, which is completely out of control. At least the advent of the internet has allowed me to search for and bookmark recipes instead of clipping them all from magazines. Sure, this has resulted in my epicurious.com recipe box having over 650 recipes in it. These are for the most part recipes that caught my eye while flipping through copies of Bon Appetit and Gourmet.

Bonny helps bring home the true connection between food and sentiment. Many of my own memories are related to food. I remember the bunny-cakes my Nana and great aunt Winnie used to serve every Easter when I was little. Bonny’s essay about Chicken a la King, made me want to call up my mom and ask for her Chicken a la King recipe. It was one of my favorite home cooked meals growing up.

I’ve made one of the recipes from the books so far and will be posting the results soon.

The book made me want to gather together recipes from my mom, from her mom, and my own and compile them all in a family favorites cookbook. Maybe that will be a new project for me this year.  It would make a really nice gift for Christmas, especially with family photos thrown into the mix.

I read this book as part of the Food for Thought book club. Check out the links on the blogroll there to see what other foodie-readers thought of Talking with my Mouth Full.

Bonny Wolf’s Website: http://www.bonnywolf.com/book.htm

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