Reginadelmar’s CBRV review #13 Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

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In the 1970s I used to babysit for a family that was better off than most folks I knew.  One day I was looking in the cupboard for a mixing bowl and saw this odd heavy piece of plastic with a 3-inch projectile sticking out of the middle. Clearly it was an appliance because it had a cord attached. Next to it was a plastic bowl with a donut hole in the middle. What the heck was this thing?  Later I learned how to use the Cuisinart, although I couldn’t understand why anyone would spend so much money on an appliance.

My own Cuisinart is now over 25 years old. I chop nuts, make hummus, salsas, sauces and pie crusts. I use it regularly and eschew the local kitchen store’s offer to trade it in for a newer model. It still works. Besides after 40 years a new Cuisinart still looks pretty much like an old one.

Consider the Fork is an interesting history about how people have cooked and eaten food since the discovery of fire. The book is organized around specific tools rather than chronologically which makes for a very interesting read. The pots and pans of today aren’t much of an improvement over those used by the Romans. Fire was used in the kitchen pretty much through the 18th Century. Refrigeration was adopted rapidly in the US and slowly in Europe. Continue reading

Owlcat’s CBR5 Review #6: Crossing the Borders of Time; A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed by Leslie Maitland

This book develops its true story on several levels, which are outlined in the title, war, exile and love.  It is the result of a faithful journalist daughter (NY Times) who had heard stories about her mother’s lost love at the beginning of WW II when she was a teen, her mother’s exile when her Jewish family fled France just before the Germans began rounding up French Jews despite the Vichy government’s conciliatory relationship with Germany, her family’s difficult exile first in Cuba while awaiting entry to the U.S. as refugees, and finally, the life she developed with her family in New York City, culminating in her relationship with her American Jewish husband whom she married several years after arriving in the U.S., believing her first true love, a non-Jew left in France, had forsaken her and their vows never to forget one another and to always wait for one another. Leslie Maitland’s mother, Janine, developed an enmeshed relationship with her daughter when unhappy with her husband’s infidelities and obsession with Ayn Rand, so that it seemed like her mother’s story was her own story and she knew minute details as a result, not only of her mother’s relationship with her lost love, Roland, but of the history of the personal effects of WWII on people and the internment in Cuba when they escaped the clutches of the Nazi regime. The author is an investigative reporter and her experience in that genre allowed her to pursue the information she needed to explain to the readers exactly what was happening and when in an historic perspective, as well as personal.

Regarding World War II itself, I don’t think most Americans are familiar with the way Hitler’s Germany conquered and usurped the French government during the war, with the French not fighting back and eventually capitulating to all the demands the Germans made on the French Vichy government.  It was a subtle and then not-so-subtle change in laws and protocols that went from confiscating Jewish housing for German officers to eventually the rounding up of Jews to be sent to the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Jews in France for a while were able to tolerate the disruptions in their lives, albeit uncertain and frightened of what was to come, because they were not being directly persecuted in terms of being shipped off or placed in ghettos.  Most found themselves without jobs and dismissed from schools and having businesses and personal property sold to non-Jews at the Nazi directives, and there were numerous Catch-22s that made life in general frustrating, frightening and difficult.  Maitland goes into great detail about her family’s (her grandparents, her parents, her brother and her extended family) trials as they sold their business and their apartment to non-Jews and moved to another town they felt might be safer in France.  There came a time, however, when her grandfather became convinced that Jews would soon not be safe anywhere in France and through great effort and much cost (most of which he had to borrow), he arranged papers that would allow the immediate family to travel first to Marseille to board one of the last ships to bring out refugees, first traveling to Casablanca, then boarding another ship to travel to Cuba to await entry into the U.S. Within days of their departure, the Nazis decreed all Jews in France be rounded up to be shipped to concentration camps; her mother’s closest family members who had chosen to remain, believing Maitland’s grandfather was being alarmist, were among those rounded up and did not survive the Holocaust.

I had been unaware of the role Cuba played in helping refugees from Europe escape the Nazis, but it was a mixed blessing for Janine and her family. Because of the U.S.’s decision to limit refugee arrivals, and because of Cuban and U.S. bureaucracies, Janine and her family remained in a refugee camp outside of Havana for almost six months before finally gaining entry into the U.S.

Prior to their escape and exile, Maitland’s mother, Janine, had met and fallen in love with Roland, over a period of several years and encounters.  He was not Jewish and as a result, Janine knew her parents would not allow the relationship to go as far as marriage, yet just before she and her family escaped, she and Roland had given each other keepsakes and he gave her a letter swearing his devotion to her and that no matter what or how much time passed, they would be reunited and marry.  However, over time, her desire to reunite with Roland was obstructed by the war, and then secretively by her parents and her brother, and she began developing a new American life, including marrying an American Jewish husband.  It was a difficult marriage due to his obsession with Ayn Rand and his infidelities and he, in addition, was jealous of the fact that she never truly ceased yearning for Roland, although she tried to not let it be known to him.  Later, she attributed her husband’s roaming as part of both his inner insecurities and demons and an attempt to validate his masculinity and being desired with the shadow of Roland lurking in the marriage, including his pictures and letters she’d kept over the years.

Maitland had always been enthralled by the stories of her mother’s forbidden romance and the family’s escape from the Nazis.  Throughout her life, she had even wondered what had become of Roland. About 50 years after her mother and Roland’s last encounter as she boarded the ship to freedom, Maitland traveled to France and learned about him and what and why he had lost touch with her mother and then, in the end, reuniting them, although this wasn’t as simple an ending as it sounds.

I have always been fascinated by how people cope with great tragedies in their lives and horrors that might be inflicted on them as a result of war or great natural calamities, and this book, in its detailed description of life in France during Nazi occupation fulfilled that interest, as did the six month internment in Cuba.  The love story for me, was actually the lesser story, but the author ably wove world history and personal history into the book in a way that made a lot of sense and explained a lot through the personal story of why and how many Jewish Holocaust survivors managed their lives in their new environments.  I recommend the book if the reader is interested in these situations as well, not just for the “love story.”

lyndamk #cbr5 review #5 & #6: Two Books on France in Vietnam

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 and Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam examine the French colonization of Indochina and its Dirty War in Vietnam. While Indochina is less accessible, Embers of War is a engaging and readable book. History buffs should definitely check these out. Read more at my blog …

Lisa Bee’s #CRB5 Review #09: Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard II coverRichard, Richard, Richard… What ever are we going to do with you?

No, this isn’t the one they found under the car park a few weeks ago, this is the one that came before all the Henrys. If I’m being honest with this one, while I do love my serious Shakespearean tales, his histories are not really my thing. The large amounts of (real) characters, almost all of which are Dukes or nobility of some sort always leave me confused as to who is who and who is on whose side. And I’m sorry to say that I found Richard II to be no different. After being a little confused as to how the whole thing went down, however, I decided to watch the BBC’s film version of the play with Ben Whishaw (as a part of their “Hollow Crown” series), and it definitely helped me understand not only what happened, but also what exactly was being said. And in this way, like some of Shakespeare’s other works, I found Richard II to be much more suited to viewing than reading.

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Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #5: Seeds by Richard Horan

Seeds by Richard Horan (cover)I’m with Horan on the interesting nature of his project, and the potential it has for reforesting the descendants of old trees, as well as reminding us that some moments cannot be contained to a “sterile” museum. However, I wish Seeds were a better book. He needed to either go the straight history route, or — as I suspect straight history would be difficult for him to write — he needed to be more complete with the memoir side of his project. Though he says that these people were important to him, we don’t know a lot about why. Bits and pieces, sure, but like I said, it’s all very on the surface. I know what it’s like to be engrossed in a fun, personal project, and so I want to know all that very personal stuff. So it’s not that Seeds is a bad concept for a book; it’s that I wished the approach and execution were different. As it stands, it is a decent library check-out, but likely a disappointing purchase.

(My full review appears on Glorified Love Letters)

Owlcat’s #CBR5 Review #5: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I am not always fond of Stephen King’s novels, particularly those that are more typically horror stories, but the theme of time travel and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy were intriguing to me and I decided, as long as the book is (800+ pages), it was worth my attempting to read it.  Although it took some time to read it, by the time I approached the ending, I was happy I had.

The main character, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, becomes a reluctant time traveler when a friend and proprietor of a local diner that he frequents, reveals the fact that there is a portal to the past in the storage room of his diner, which he has been accessing for many years as a way of buying meat that allows him to charge unbelievably low prices for his hamburgers in the diner in the present. Jake is given the opportunity to try out the portal, which always returns a person to the year 1958, but returns the person only two minutes into the present regardless of how many “years” he spends in the past.  The diner owner, Al, has discovered, as well, that the past can be changed, but that there is an apparent “reset” that causes the changes to no longer be in effect unless the person who returns to the past then changes it again.  When Jake is convinced (as is the reader) that Al is not crazy and that this portal exists, he takes an exploratory journey into 1958, discovers the reality of time travel, and returns to discuss with Al his purpose for recruiting Jake into this world. Al is obsessed with changing the events of November 22, 1963, i.e., the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He is convinced if Kennedy is not assassinated, the resulting other changes will be positive and and the world will overall be a better place.  Because he develops terminal lung cancer, he has decided to recruit the reluctant Jake to accomplish his goal by assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald.

Because he is skeptical about cause and effect, Jake first does a “dry run,” in which he hopes to kill the father of a night time student he has who has described in an emotional essay the horrors of his father’s murdering his entire family and causing him to develop a crippling leg injury.  In the long attempt to set up this change in history, Jake learns numerous things about the path of doing so, including the fact that time is almost a living entity that does not want to be changed, and as a result Jake is confronted with numerous attacks on himself to prevent his doing so. He also notes a certain harmony in time and place and people, and the obvious “butterfly effect” that will result in other changes.  When he returns, after a harrowing event in which he basically accomplishes his goal, he discovers that the present is changed, but not necessarily in the way he had anticipated.  Because this seemed to work out, however, he has begun to believe that he can effect a momentous change by killing Lee Harvey Oswald and when he returns to discuss this with Al, discovers Al has committed suicide because of the cancer, and because the portal will be demolished when Al’s diner is demolished, which had been previously scheduled, Jake takes Al’s notebook that includes his research of Oswald, as well as other information that will help Jake maintain a life while in the past.

Because I grew up in the era described in the book and because I also lived in New England (as is often usual, King’s book takes place in Maine) and because I was a senior in high school when President Kennedy was assassinated, I was drawn into the past that King describes.  It was amusing to be reminded of the simple things like Moxie, as well as the lack of technology that inhibits Jake, but also how people related to one another then with less fear and fewer assumptions and were more willing to just accept things as they are, whether that was good or not being left up to the reader.  Things Jake could do then could not be done in the present and he was frequently reminded of this.

When he returns to 1958 to prepare to eliminate Lee Harvey Oswald from his chance to assassinate Kennedy, we follow Jake in a number of choices, good and bad, that lead him to the final scenes in the book.  Because he is there for such a long time (1958 through 1963), we see him develop friendships, a loving relationship, and conflicts within himself, all of which are based in part on secrets because he can’t reveal who he really is (he goes by George) nor his reason for being where he is at that time in history. Jake had refrained from killing him at other times when he had actually had the opportunity, before he was beaten, because in his monitoring Oswald when he returned to the States from Russia, he has discovered another plot Oswald was involved in and he had intended to shoot him then, but that was subverted by his needing to care for his love, Sadie, who was herself a victim of a horrific attack by her ex-husband.She in turn nurses him back to health when,because of circumstances that cause him to be badly beaten and in the hospital, he loses some of his memory. He slowly regains his memory in time to race to the Texas School Book Depository just before Oswald is about to shoot President Kennedy. In the course of their relationship, he had revealed his true identity and purpose for being there to Sadie, who goes with him to help. Through a complicated series of events that last seconds, Sadie is killed by a bullet from Oswald meant for Jake (George), and Oswald is unable to assassinate the President, as the Secret Service and police fire on him through the window and kill him.

As a result of Sadie’s being killed, Jake decides to return to 2011 and then return to 1958 to reset everything and try again, without Sadie’s dying.  It is at this point in the novel when we learn the significance of the “Yellow Card Man,” encountered with each entry into the portal, although this Yellow Card Man is a Green Card Man at this time Jake is exiting, and he describes the portals and what is to become of them to Jake and the reader.  He further describes the fact that although it appears time resets with each re-entry, in actuality, each “reset” is a different time thread (I kept thinking of “string theory”) and the more strings created, the more unstable time becomes.  When Jake returns to 2011, he discovers that his changing history in fact did drastically change the present and what he finds is disconcerting and depressing and frightening.  But when he returns to 1958, which puts everything back onto another “thread,” at that point he knows he needs to return to 2011 without changing anything.  Returning to the present, he discovers everything is pretty much restored and that Sadie, whose death he had hoped to prevent, survived the horrific attack by her ex-husband without his interference, and that she is still alive, albeit elderly, in 2011.  There is a touching last scene in the book that apparently, according to his official website, King hadn’t intended, but was suggested by his author son, Joe Hill.

This was a difficult review to write because I didn’t want to reveal too much, but at the same time, the entire plot and the characters are so complicated and woven together that without referring to one thing meant I’m probably leaving the reader somewhat confused.  This is also, I’m sure, why the novel is so long, because so much is interwoven with each segment and so much needed to be explained. I never felt the length of the novel interfered with the enjoyment of it, however. His characters are true to life and react as real people would in both normal and abnormal situations. There were a few times when it was necessary to dispense with belief on my part only because time travel (as far as we know) is not possible, but King is a masterful storyteller and easily convinces his readers to believe what he is writing. I was sorry when the story ended and could have read another 800+ pages!!

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #1: Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes

Recently released in paperback by Vintage, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, is the art and culture critic’s last published book. Hughes died in August 2012.

Hughes has always been good at mixing history with an entertaining story, and Romedoesn’t disappoint–but it is a dense read. There is a lot of information in its almost 500-page length. Luckily there are also many color illustrations to aid the reader with unfamiliar artists or architecture.

Rome is undeniably one of the world’s great cities. One can learn of its amazing history, from its Etruscan roots, to its Imperial grandeur and fall, to its Renaissance glory, to its 20th century cool. But there is nothing like actually visiting the city, and being able to experience the collision of all of those eras, sometimes on one street corner, or Roman encounter. Hughes (Shock of the New, Barcelona, Culture of Complaint) tries to capture all of Rome’s glory and contradictions in his rambling, yet entertaining narrative.

Hughes tries to convey, in only the way he does, how he views the city of Rome. “In other places fountains are special events,” he notes, “but in Rome they are simply part of the vernacular of city life; you notice them, you see them as exceptions to the surfaces of stone or brick, but it seems that they are there to be breathed, not just seen.”

Throughout Rome he gives his very personal, mostly chronological history of the city, highlighting the art and people that he deems most important or interesting. Hughes starts off by taking the reader through Rome’s beginnings, the Roman Empire and all of the magnificent art and architecture that resulted from Emperor Augustus and his successors, through the city’s shift to becoming the center of Christianity.

In his chapter on the Renaissance Hughes is truly in his element, focusing on art and architecture. He tackles not only the creation of probably Rome’s most well-known artwork, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but also the more modern controversy around whether they should have been cleaned. He has always stood firmly in the “yes” camp on that issue and reiterates his position here.

Jumping ahead to Rome in the 17th century and its Baroque period of art, Hughes enjoys talking about “bad boy” artist Caravaggio as well as Spanish painter Diego Velasquez. Velasquez only stayed there a year, but Hughes believes he was profoundly influenced by the city and its art.

When he reaches the 20th century Hughes highlights the connection between Mussolini’s fascism and art, reiterating the commonly held view that the political movement’s roots can be found in the poetry of famed Italian poet and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio. As Hughes tells it, only in Italy, only in Rome, could art and politics mix so fully.

He ends his tour of Rome with the cinema of the 1950s and ’60s. Film studio Cinecittà (also with links to Mussolini, who founded the studio to produce propaganda films in 1937) turned the city into a filming destination, both for location and subject, hosting religious epics like Ben Hur, and Quo Vadis. Native efforts with more contemporary themes, especially Fellini’s iconic La Dolce Vita changed and influenced modern cinema. He enjoys dropping fascinating tidbits such as producer Dino DiLaurentis’s desire to have Paul Newman play the character of Marcello in La Dolce Vita (sacrilege!)

The overall effect of Hughes’ Rome is like the eternal city itself. If you have never been there, whether you are diving in or just sampling, this book will make you want to visit. If you have already been to Rome in the past, Hughes easily and entertainingly reminds you why you need to return.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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lilFed CBR#5 Review #2: Out of Our Heads: Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off by George Case

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Okay, so a few weeks back I’m drooling at the visually stunning sights of glossy, crisply embossed books on display at the downtown Books-A-Million store: those tantalizing, sixty-five & seventy-tastic-percent-off shelves and bins; the gathered variety of heady aromas emanating from multitudes of perfectly erect, disciplined rows of hard- and soft-back binders, the faux-leatherbound tomes that I at once want to both caress and squeeze with abandon;  thrillers, romances, inspiring biographies and masterful home-repair books; all intensely mingling, tightly and forcefully in surrounding cavities of the vast warehouse of wonder: as one barely containable, orgiastic collective betwixt their dominating, unyielding bookends of cuckolded pressure… and then the intoxicating aromas my olfactory senses begin to experience- nostrils squeezing to capture the seductive musk of pure, silky-white, unopened layers of compressed pulpweed-cum-paper, their factory-bred, tree-raped scent making me giddy with possibilities of liberating the finest, most perfect literary delights, spreading out their– okay, we’ve all been there..

…and only after I’ve prematurely blown my wad over half a dozen slimy, brazenly anonymous literary lizards- that is, impulsively paying out serious money I shouldn’t be ‘blowing’ on new books I haven’t  looked over more thoroughly, or at least read some reviews of beforehand (I made that ‘blowing the wad’ part clear, right?) – WELL, now this leaves me awkwardly trying to remove myself from what I call one of those ‘should have known better’ books. It’s a hazard when searching out some narrowly-defined subjects, I imagine.

I thought this one would be different, that we might really connect, you know?? I am not so vapid as to judge a book by its cover, which I know you’re all thinking and I refuse to even go there – but come. on. : this slut is putting it aaalll out there with that hot provocative subtitle and that dangerously curvaceous, ‘look-at-me’ font, like it knows things I couldn’t begin to imagine.

But then we get home, the prologue alone begins to bore me, and then it’s all like, ‘Well, you didn’t mind pinchin’ on my thick bibliography when you was thumbin’ through my  back pages at the store now, did you?’ So, being starved anyways for some new reading on a now-ancient subject, which by the way is the ONLY reason I’ve maintained my ‘Rolling Stone’ subscription – any articles related to rock music less than 35 years old are ripped out & trashed – I reluctantly bend myself to the book-bitch’s will for the time being and try gving it a go – there have been some great books with amazingly crappy beginnings.

A good historical author should be aware that writing a compelling history, on any subject, requires much more than simply repeating facts. Disappointingly, that’s virtually all Case does in this thing; he doesn’t come close to delivering what his title promises, rather maintaining a wholly uninteresting redundancy throughout that amounts to not much more than rattling off a list of rock artists and the drugs, hallucinogenics and/or formidable amounts of alcohol they indulged in, nothing that a thousand other authors haven’t already done, and in way more entertaining and informative approaches. Case demonstrates a total lack of insight as to how, say, these legendary musicians’ addictions affected their creative process (or obliterated it completely). There are no recollections of wild, joyous release and defining moments of a heightened awareness shared by the generation that first turned on.

Most criminally, however, virtually the only perspective, single and far removed the actual time he dispassionately rambles on about, is from Case alone: no other interview pieces, reflections, or recollections, or even anecdotes from any actual rock stars – he’s not writing about Mozart or Charlie Parker, but artists that are still living and have all of this history to share. You read Steven Tyler’s book, or Keith Richards’ Life, and you know that they know what they’re talking about.

The people who grew up with and loved classic rock already know who the alcoholic, drug-addicted (or recovering) rock stars are, or were; we know how getting high affected their careers and relationships, and how a lot of those times are looked back on fondly by many; and we sure as hell knew then, even more immediately now, when their tripping asses get busted by “The Man” for various indiscretions their respective vices more likely than not contributed to, and their unfortunate discovery for the world to read about.

The closest Case comes in this book is an admittedly wonderful and detailed description of the Great “Summit Meeting” between Dylan and The Beatles, when the folk rock troubadour had the distinct honor of introducing the Fab Four to the herb that literally would change their life in “oh so many ways” (from ‘Help!’, a movie they’d started filming shortly after, where they were stoned throughout the entire production).

I mentioned a bibliography above, but it’s not “thick” at all – it has most of the highlights (Guralnik’s brilliant 2-book Elvis bio, Steven Davis’ Hammer of the Gods). But this makes nary a difference to George Case, ’cause he didn’t learn a damn thing from any of them.

And I slogged through 240-plus pages to see the ‘textbook’ example of NOT HAVING A CLUE about “Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off” – this writer’s only achievement was in completely harshing my buzz.