Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Book Whisperer Asks, Need a New Cozy Series?

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I am a fan of cozy mysteries and enjoy reading books in a series. A series gives an author an opportunity to develop the main character and minor characters who reappear in the stories. I like the familiarity of the known characters. Innovative authors keep me returning to their series by keeping the stories fresh. When Don, my friend and fellow reader, suggested I read the Diva series by Krista Davis, I immediately requested from the library The Diva Runs Out of Thyme, the first in the series.

For readers who like whodunits in which everyone, even the main character, is a suspect and food is an essential part of the story, then The Diva Runs Out of Thyme will provide a good book to cozy up with on a cold winter’s night.

I started reading The Diva Runs Out of Thyme on Saturday after Thanksgiving, not realizing the story takes place at Thanksgiving. I enjoyed the references to the foods Sophie Winston, the main character, serves her family and friends on Thanksgiving — and the story contains many references to the food!

Sophie Winston, divorced from Mars, lives alone with shared custody of their dog Daisy. Mars now has a new girlfriend, Natasha, Sophie’s high school rival. Sophie works as a successful event planner. Natasha has a Martha Stewart-like show on a local cable channel. Sophie cooks for her events and decorates beautifully if somewhat low-key. On the other hand, Natasha goes over the top for everything.

Sophie in her last-minute rush to the grocery store for Thanksgiving food supplies encounters a man who is trying to give away a kitten, an Ocicat, in fact. Sophie waves the man away and hurries into the store. Even while she shops for the groceries, however, Sophie cannot stop thinking about the tiny kitten. When she puts her groceries in her car, she sees the banana box that held the kitten; it is sitting on the hood of a car.

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Surely, the man did not abandon the kitten in the box in the cold, but there the kitten is, shivering. Then Sophie notices something else even more sinister, blood. When she looks into the dumpster, she sees the man she had encountered earlier, clearly dead, at the bottom of the dumpster.

Sophie calls 911 and the police and an ambulance arrive quickly. During the interrogation, Sophie meets Detective Wolf Fleishman. Sophie’s groceries are put into the store’s refrigerated unit; Sophie’s car is impounded by the police. After being taken the police station for further questions, Sophie is taken home. Later, Detective Fleishman brings her groceries along with some food for the kitten which Sophie has now rescued.

The story becomes more and more complicated when another death occurs at a hotel where Sophie, Natasha, and others are competing in a stuffing recipe contest. And who finds the body? Sophie, of course!

Food, murders, stalking, and intrigue all figure into The Diva Runs Out of Thyme. Sophie’s neighbor Nina becomes a sleuth with Sophie to ferret out Natasha’s stalker and the peeping tom of the neighborhood as well as finding out who committed the murders.

Krista Davis, an animal lover, has pictures of her various rescue pets on her Web site: http://www.kristadavis.com/.

On the Web site, readers will learn about other books by Krista Davis. The Diva series will soon add its twelfth book in a 2019. Other series include the Pen & Ink and the Paws & Claws mysteries.

Davis also includes recipes for both humans and animals on the Web site. Find the recipe for this lucious orange-soaked bundt cake on the site.

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Below, see a picture of The Diva Runs Out of Thyme sold in Japan.

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The Book Whisperer Says Read The Library Book!

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Ron Charles of The Washington Post wrote, “You can’t help but finish The Library Book and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.” This quote from Charles’ review of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is an excellent way to begin a review of an excellent book.

Orlean writes with such passion, knowledge, and care that I read most of the book in one day and finished it the next day. Orlean describes library visits with her mother when Orlean was a child. The pair would go into Bertram Woods branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system, their neighborhood library in Cleveland. Immediately, the two would separate and then reunite at the checkout counter, each with her own books.

Orlean writes “our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so beautiful. I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived.” This description shows Orlean’s love of the library, books, and reading, so readers immediately trust her.

When Orlean moves to Los Angeles, she learns of the 1986 fire which raged for seven hours and thirty-eight minutes. She was living in NY at the time and had no memory of even hearing about the fire in Los Angeles. However, at the time of the fire, April 29, 1986, another world event took the headlines in NY papers: Soviet Announces Nuclear Accident at Electric Plan, Mishap Acknowledged After Rising Radiation Levels Spread to Scandinavia.

The New York Times does mention the Los Angeles library fire on April 30 on page A14.

When the fire alarm first sounded, librarians, staff, and patrons simply walked outside, thinking another false alarm had sounded. Most people left their belongings in the library because they expected the all clear to be sounded soon and they would return to their spots.

Michael Lewis, New York Times, writes “the 1986 fire inside the Central Library, and the subsequent, inconclusive investigation of it, turn out to be a MacGuffin, a trick for luring the reader into a subject into which the reader never imagined he’d [or she’d] be lured: the history and present life of the Los Angeles Central Library.” That is exactly what Orlean does, lures the readers into learning about the fire and then turns the story on end to provide a history of the Los Angeles library system.

Orlean provides background on librarians of the past and present. Mary Foy, for example, became the youngest person to head the Los Angeles Public Library; she was eighteen and a female in a time when men primarily ruled the library. Readers also learn about polymath C.J.K. Jones, billed as “The Human Encyclopedia.”

Orlean devotes a great deal of space in the book to Charles Lummis who is hard to describe in a few sentences. For example, when Lummis got the job as head of the Los Angeles Libraries, many people objected saying “Lummis did not have any experience or training in the management of a library.” Lummis also had a tumultuous personal life which included multiple marriages, divorces, and extra-marital affairs which included a daughter born out of wedlock.

Mary Jones, the head of the library whom Lummis was set to replace, refused to give up her job. The dispute continued for some time before the library board moved from asking Jones to resign to firing her, forcing her out of the job.

Another librarian of importance is Althea Warren who told librarians at a convention in 1935 that librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.” Warren also published tip sheets, “Althea’s ways to Achieve Reading.” These tip sheets offered encouraging ways for people to find time for reading.

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Warren wanted to find ways to boost reading in all ages. When she took over leadership of the Los Angeles Library system, children had to be in third grade or above to have a library card. She declared any child who could “sign his or her name” could have a library card.

The Library Book offers readers history, scandal, and a mystery about the fire itself. Orlean writes with such engaging prose that anyone interested in books and libraries will be fascinated by the sweeping story of the Los Angeles Library system.

Orlean writes about the fire and loss of books: “The deepest effect of burning books is emotional. When libraries burn, the books are sometimes described as ‘wounded’ or as ‘casualties,’ just as human beings would be.”

Another quote from The Library Book haunts me with its truth: “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.”

Oh, yes, and Orlean devotes her research to finding out as much as she can about Harry Peak, the man accused of setting the 1986 fire. Did Peak start the fire? Did someone else start it? Was it an accident, caused by faulty wiring? Read The Library Book.

Near the end of The Library Book, Orlean writes about visiting the library late in the day, near closing time when it was quiet. She describes the library in this quiet time: “The silence was more soothing than solemn. A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know there is voice inside that is waiting to speak to you.”

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Read The Library Book and share it with a fellow reader!

Susan Orlean’s Web site: http://www.susanorlean.com/.

 

The Book Whisperer Bakes!

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With Christmas drawing near, I turned my thoughts to cooking. Two cookbooks caught my attention: Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book and Christmas Cookie Swap! These thoughts may have been spurred on by reading about Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book: Baking Demystified With 450 Foolproof Recipes From America’s Most Trusted Food Magazine.

The flyleaf of Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book tells readers the test cooks for the book’s recipes have been baking for more than twenty years. They say “anyone – and we mean anyone—can become a baker.” The large book contains recipes, yes, but more than that, each recipe comes with extras.

For example, the recipe for Sticky Buns with Pecans found on page 72 starts with “Why This Recipe Works.” The test cooks provide their reasoning behind changes they have made in the recipe. They conclude that too often sticky buns are “too sweet, too big, too rich, and just too much.” They developed a lighter bun recipe and a “gently gooey and chewy glaze.”

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Other hints include ways to soften the glaze, balance the sweetness so that the buns are not overly sweet, to use light brown sugar. Perhaps the most important hint is to bake the buns on a stone for even browning. The test cooks also tell bakers to be patient and let the buns rest in the pan a few minutes before turning them out.

All of the recipes consist of these same hints and suggestions, all found to be useful through the lengthy testing process. Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book provides a number of color photographs of the finished products. In addition, bakers will also find extensive illustrations such as those found on page 325 with the Ultimate Flourless Chocolate Cake recipe. The illustrations demonstrate sifting the confectioner’s sugar over strips of paper about ¾ inch in order to develop an “attractive striped pattern.” Now, many bakers could think of that trick themselves, but have they?

One of the most important hints I discovered in leafing through Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book is how to make a foolproof apple pie: precook the apples. Here is the information from the recipe itself: “toss apples, ½ cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, lemon zest, salt, and cinnamon together in Dutch oven. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until apples are tender when poked with a fork, but still hold their shape, 15 to 20 minutes.” This precooking of the apples will “get rid of excess moisture” and the crust will not be soggy. I wish I had known this trick years ago!

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Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book delivers many extras such as an overview of core baking ingredients, how to keep brown sugar from hardening, and essential baking equipment. The “Shopping Guide” at the end of the book shows pictures of equipment and brand names recommended by the test cooks. Many of the items are inexpensive.

For those looking for an innovative cookie cookbook, Christmas Cookie Swap! will fit the bill. Oxmoor House publishes the cookie cookbook along with a host of other cookbooks, notably Southern Living’s annual cookbook.

Christmas Cookie Swap! begins with basic information about the best frosting, how to freeze cookies, how to host a cookie swap and how to “Assemble a Showstopping Cookie Platter.” The table of contents divides the recipes into the following: Cookies for Santa, Decorated Cookies, Christmas Classics, Brownies and Bars, and Confections.

All of the recipes are illustrated with full color photographs of the finished cookies and bars, all artfully displayed. Bakers will find recipes such as Triple Gingersnappers, Wreath Macaroons, and Brownie Cookies.

One of the most intriguing cookie recipes is Chocolate=Peanut Butter Thumbprint Cookies. The recipe begins with refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough and includes additional peanut butter morsels, dry-roasted peanuts, and miniature peanut butter-cup candies. Those ingredients save the baker time and the result is a showy, delicious cookie.

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A recipe that caught my attention as I thumbed through Christmas Cookie Swap! is found on page 109: Orange-Frosted Cornmeal Stars.  The recipe contains the ingredients one would expect in a sugar cookie, but the unexpected ingredient is 2/3 cup of yellow cornmeal!

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Both Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book and Christmas Cookie Swap! provide bakers with valuable information, recipes, tips, and hints. I highly recommend them both for anyone interested in baking.

 

The Book Whisperer Finds a Gem

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From my local library, I requested The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa a long time ago. The wait has been worthwhile, however. I received the book this week and have finished it so it can return to the library and on to another patron.

The first sentence on the Amazon site about The Travelling Cat Chronicles calls the book “a life-affirming anthem to kindness and self-sacrifice.” It goes on to say the book “shows how the smallest things can provide the greatest joy.” In these days when so much bad news dominates, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a joy to read even though it is tinged with some sadness.

Satoru Miyawaki rescues a cat which has a crooked tail. The crook in the tail reminds Satoru of the number seven and the Japanese word for that is nana, so the cat becomes Nana. We learn the story through travels Satoru and Nana make as Satoru visits with old friends, elementary, high school, and college friends.

Nana, of course, cannot speak, but we readers are privy to his thoughts. Nana is a complicated cat with a great deal to tell. Before Satoru rescues him, Nana has been sleeping on Satoru’s silver van hood where it is warm. Satoru begins leaving food for Nana. Then tragedy occurs when Nana is hit by a car and badly wounded, with a bone sticking out of his leg.

Nana reasons that if he can get back to the silver van, Satoru will help him. He is right; Satoru takes Nana to the vet and Nana survives the accident. Then Satoru decides to keep Nana in the apartment with him and chooses the name Nana even though Nana thinks it a bit too girlish for him.

After five years together, Satoru explains to Nana that he must find someone else to care for him for a while, but Satoru does not say why. To that end, Satoru sets out with Nana in the silver van, visiting three friends in turn. The visits are to determine who among those friends could take Nana temporarily.

Satoru enjoys reconnecting with his old friends, but each time, he and Nana leave together. Satoru cannot see that leaving with Nana with the old friends would be the right fit. Along the way, readers learn that Satoru is a gentle and caring person, always upbeat and kind. We also learn that Satoru’s parents died in a car accident when Satoru was in elementary school and he went to live with his mother’s younger sister who is unmarried. Her job is such that she must move often, so Satoru learns to make friends wherever they go.

Reviews call The Travelling Cat Chronicles charming and courageous. Above all, the story is about love, companionship, loyalty, and gratitude. I would agree.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Henrietta Lacks

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Rebecca Skloot

The Book Whisperer Reviews Henrietta Lacks

I finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot in late October in anticipation of discussing it in a book club on Nov 5. Unfortunately, because of unexpected emergency surgery, I did not attend the book club. Since then, I have been looking at the book, but I have been somehow reluctant to write my review.

Perhaps that stems from the fact that so much has been written about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks already. Still, the book sat on my desk nagging me to write my own review, so here are some thoughts on Skloot’s work.

The beginning of the book intrigued me  in that Skloot had “failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up.” After transferring to an alternative school, Skloot also had the opportunity to take a biology class in community college. Donald Defler, the instructor, was teaching the class about mitosis, the process of cell division, when he wrote HENRIETTA LACKS on the board “in enormous print.” From this casual mention of Lacks’ name and that her “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” Skloot began an investigation that ultimately culminated in her meeting Lacks’ family and writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot had to overcome a number of obstacles because her search for information about Lacks often yielded little to no information, but she kept digging until she uncovered more and more and finally after patiently introducing herself and re-introducing herself to Lacks’ family, discovered more information from the family itself.

Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, said to Skloot, “How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane? She was trying to get your attention.”Skloot holds onto to this notion that Henrietta wanted Skloot to discover as much as she could about Henrietta and the HeLa cells because it took years to findall the information she needed.

Part of that time, Skloot had to win Lacks’ family’s trust because others had misled the family many times over. Skloot had to prove again and again that she wanted to tell the whole story of Henrietta and not exploit her or her family.

Henrietta’s cells “helped launch the  fledgling field of virology.” Henrietta’s cells not only lived, but they also reproduced in prodigious numbers when many, many other cells had simply died in the laboratory. For the first time, scientists and researchers across the world could work with the “same cells, growing in the same media, using the same equipment, all of which they could buy and have delivered to their labs.”

The HeLa cells grew from “a sliver of her tumor, which was a cluster of cells.” They continue to grow in laboratories today and are sold through The American Type Culture Collection, “a non-profit whose funds go mainly toward maintaining and providing pure cultures for science.” The nonprofit has been selling HeLa cells since the sixties.

At Rebeccaskloot.com, readers will find a wealth of material about Lacks.

Teachers will find useful resources at this site: http://rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/teaching/.

Find the movie preview and a number of other articles related to Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells and research at this location: https://henriettalackshbo.com/about/index.html.

The Book Whisperer Catches Up By Reviewing Less

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Let me begin by naming a few of the awards Andrew Sean Greer has won for his work: Pulitzer Prize, Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and the O Henry Award for short fiction. Greer won the Pulitzer for Less, his most recent novel.  The New York Times Book Review describes Less as “a struggling novelist travels the world to avoid an awkward wedding in this hilarious Pulitzer Prize-winning novel full of ‘arresting lyricism and beauty’.”

Who am I to argue with The New York Times Book Review? On the other hand, I am a reader with my own taste in reading. I do not like Less even though the book does have some funny moments. For example, when Arthur Less is in Mexico City to talk about his former lover Robert Brownburn, a renowned poet, his host asks “Do you think of yourself as a genius, Arthur?” The host takes Arthur’s surprise to mean no, that he Arthur is not a genius.

The host, a poetry professor, continues by saying, “You and me, we’ve met geniuses. And we know we’re not like them, don’t we? What is it like to go on, knowing you are not a genius, knowing you are a mediocrity? I think it’s the worst kind of hell.”

Arthur Less who made an early splash of success with his first novel, has struggled to recreate that success. When Arthur learns Freddy, a young former lover, is getting married, Arthur finds all the invitations he has received to literary festivals around the world and accepts all of them, in turn. He will start his world tour in Mexico City and then on the Europe and finally Japan. All of these trips will help him avoid Freddy’s wedding.

Fernando is assigned to show Arthur around Mexico City before the festival begins. Fernando suggests one outing after another, starting with the Teotihuacan, the homes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and the National Museum of Anthropology. Arthur agrees to each outing in turn, but then Fernando says, “but it is closed” about each one.

Then Arthur learns that Marian Brownburn, the woman who was married to the poet Robert Brownburn when Arthur began his affair with Brownburn, will also appear on the stage with him. He has not seen Marian for nearly thirty years, shortly after Arthur and Robert began their affair. Arthur is horrified that the two will share the stage and more than a little fearful of the meeting after all these years. Readers can see the dark humor in these scenes.

Unfortunately, for me, the story has too much whining even though The New York Times says it is full of “arresting lyricism and beauty.” Perhaps that word lyricism also plays a part. I have developed an almost fanatical dislike of books described as lyrical.  So, dear readers, make up your own mind about Arthur Less and his mid-life crisis by reading Less for yourself. Also, learn more about Andrew Sean Greer at his site: https://andrewgreer.com/.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews an Oklahoma Icon

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Woody Guthrie’s only completed novel, House of Earth, reminds readers of the grinding poverty of the Dust Bowl era and the hard lives of those who had to scramble for every dollar in order to survive. The odds are against Tike and Ella Mae Hamlin and they milk cows and farm on land they can never hope to own. When they try to purchase some of the land for their own, the owner refuses. His only offer is that they can work on shares, a more difficult life than the one they now have.

Ella Mae is pregnant, near delivery of her first baby. Tike dreams of building a house of earth, a place that would be warm in the winter and cool in the summer, a protection from the elements and a place of their own. Instead, the two live in a ramshackle house where they paste newspapers on the walls in an effort to block out some of the cold winter air. Instead, the wind blows through the cracks, leaving trails of dust everywhere.

Clearly, Tike and Ella Mae love one another and strongly wish to better themselves, making a living wage and providing a clean, safe home for the family. Guthrie provides readers with a realistic portrayal of the poverty and the difficulty of rising above that poverty when the landowner holds all the advantages. While Tike and Ella Mae work hard every day, they still find it difficult to rise above the dusty poverty.

House of Earth is an important book in the history of the US. Guthrie was known for his protests and the songs he wrote for the people. House of Earth fits into that canon of work. The dialogue is stilted, perhaps, but it reflects a real love between Tike and Ella Mae as they strive to create a life for themselves despite tremendous odds.

John Steinbeck says, “Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”