Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Decorating with Books

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Books have lost their prominent position in my life.

Books continue to fill shelves throughout my house, they crowd my nightstand, and a trip to the bookstore is an expensive outing, but the ones on the shelves are decorations, the ones on my nightstand are a 2 minute distraction before sleep, and my purchases are mere good intentions. I don’t read books anymore.

Of course, that is a bit of an exaggeration. I read the informative parts of cookbooks, and a new book on brewing will be devoured in days. I browse poetry books to give me something to write about on Sundays. But I cannot recall the last time I picked up a meaty work of fiction and read myself into a new world.

Last week, a younger friend told me she had finished reading “A Soldier of the Great War“, possibly my favorite novel. She loved it. I was flattered she had invested the time to read such a lengthy book on my recommendation, but, internally, it struck me that I had read the book more than a decade ago, and, if she were to ask me for a recommendation from the vast store of great books written in the past 5 years, I would be a dry well. I was a little jealous of the reading experience she had just been through. I don’t really read books anymore.

I read lots of other things, and a lot of it has real quality. Much of the blog world amounts to an elaborate melding of created personae, real world events and selected fiction. Real creativity can be found on the pages of Frighteningly Uncommon Sense, Observant Bystander, and most of the other blogs on the left side of this page. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

But it’s not a substitute for really sinking into a great novel. I want to spend the time inside a character’s skin, and experience life in a way I haven’t yet imagined. I want to ride on a raft down the Mississippi; I want to be honestly human in World War II; I want to pursue Fermina until she deems me worthy.

Over the next several months, I may miss a few more blog posts, and I might fall behind on Facebook updates. I hope to be a bit more absent. I’ve got plenty of decorations to choose from in this house.

Easy Great Bread at Home in 5 Minutes

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

I’ve written about my sourdough baking, and I got comments and emails about people’s love of home-made fresh bread. But it’s an hours-long process, requiring attentive measuring and careful timing, with uncertain results, particularly for newbie bakers. With Farm-to-Market’s wonderful bread on supermarket shelves, and Fervere producing some of the best breads in the world, you can avoid the whole hassle for 4 or 5 bucks.

But you can make your whole house smell like baking bread for cents a loaf, and be rewarded with a truly top-notch bread, way up there with Farm-to-Market, without worry and without scheduling your day around it. I don’t mean to sound like a street corner evangelist, or a side-show barker, but, seriously, I mean YOU, you should have fresh bread this week.

The secret is cold, wet dough. You spend a few minutes mixing together 3 cups of water, a table spoon and a half of yeast, two teaspoons of salt (more or less, depending on your taste), and six and a half cups of flour in a bowl with a spoon (no kneading), let it sit, covered loosely, for a couple hours, then put it in your refrigerator. Over the next couple weeks (if it lasts that long), you put flour on your hands, grab a grapefruit sized chunk of it, shape it into a sticky ball, let it rest for 40 minutes, and then bake it in a 450 degree oven for half an hour or so. Your hands are dirty for under 5 minutes, and you’ll be pulling an awesome loaf of bread out of the oven in less time than it takes for 3 episodes of “Scrubs”.

I meant to post a picture of one of the loaves I made this week, but it fell victim to breakfast toast.

If you want to learn more, and make the bread even better, this article is what turned me on to this miracle method, and it has a few tips that are absolutely worth it, like using a pizza stone and putting a pan of water in when you bake the bread. The authors of the article also have a blog and a couple books (Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking and Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients). I haven’t even read the books yet – the Kansas City Public Library (yea, Waldo Branch!) is working on it for me – but I’ve been wildly impressed with the breads I’ve made over the past couple weeks.

Sarah Palin – Lost Leader

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Major retailers are selling Sarah Palin’s book below cost, losing money on every sale, in an attempt to lure spenders, in the hopes that those buyers will make other, more profitable purchases. The retail strategy is called a “loss leader”, though, in Palin’s case, the term “lost leader” seems a little more appropriate. She was supposed to be Alaska’s governor for a full term, but she lost her will to serve. She was supposed to be a leader of our country, but she complains in her book that she was dominated by mid-level handlers from the McCain campaign. She was supposed to be an opinion leader, but she whines that Katie Couric’s questions were too tough.

In any case, it’s funny to see her sustained self-pitying is being used as retail bait by Amazon, Target, and Walmart. Perhaps, as a fan of literature, I should be frustrated that the major retailers are artificially advancing the ratings of a sub-par book, but, let’s face it, a larger segment of the market wants to read about a failed leader than the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

It’s fine with me that those who choose to purchase Ms. Palin’s book will only be paying a fraction of the true cost.

If she had been a more appealing politician, we would all be paying the cost now.

Mix Tapes/CDs

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

For our Book Club meeting this week, we read “Love is a Mix Tape“, and a bunch of us created mix CDs to share. It occurred to me that it had been years since I had created my own mix, though the technology for sharing music has improved vastly from the days of putting an album on the turntable and snapping the cassette recorder on and off as the desired songs played. Back in cassette days, a mix tape was a real time investment, but now it’s a matter of dragging and dropping.

It was a fun project. The challenge is to come up with something that the recipient might not have heard, which forced me to break out of my “same old” mold. My natural inclination was to pull out a few of my favorite songs by favorite artists, but what’s the point of sharing Springsteen, Petty, Dylan, and Prince when the people I know are mostly well-versed in their music already? A mix tape should introduce your friends to the gems you’ve found that might not have shown up on their radar.

I would up going with a mostly alt.country mix, with a few other gems. Alt.country is a sound I’ve been enjoying a lot over the past several years, and it’s under-appreciated by most people who think of rock as Springsteen and country as Toby Keith.

Anyhow, here’s what I came up with.

1. Let’s Take Some Drugs And Drive Around… 5:12
2. I Will Survive / Cake 5:11
3. Shrapnel / American Steel 4:28
4. Permanent Scar / O+S 3:34
5. Hurting Each Other / Johnette Napolitano… 4:12
6. Skinny Love / Bon Iver 3:59
7. Some Are Lakes / Land Of Talk 3:41
8. Flowered Dresses / Slaid Cleaves 3:49
9. Another Kind Of Blue / Slaid Cleaves 2:28
10. Hallelujah / Jeff Buckley 6:53
11. Oh My Sweet Carolina / Ryan Adams 4:57
12. Girl From Maryville / Thad Cockrell 4:29
13. I and Love and You / The Avett Brothers 5:01
14. Drown / Son Volt 3:22
15. A Better Place / The Setters 3:59
16. Euro-Trash Girl / Cracker 8:04

There was also a bonus track in there, which shall remain nameless.

Since I’ve reintroduced myself to the ease of sharing music with friends, I think I’ll try to do a better job of evangelizing music I like.

Kansas City Mystery – "The Dead Man", by Joel Goldman

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Last time I read a Joel Goldman mystery, I was more than mildly negative – “Really, this book is awful – execrable dialog with an implausible plot, and minority characters who are so shallow I would accuse the author of racism if he had demonstrated he could write believable characters of any ethnicity.” So I was surprised to receive a free review copy of his newest effort, “The Dead Man“, starring the same main character and also set in Kansas City.

Deja vu? Thank goodness, deja nope.

“The Dead Man” is a striking success. An alert reader stays one step ahead of Jack Davis most of the way through the book, and an alert Kansas Citian recognizes a few local characters along with the landmarks. I saw through the mystery early in the book, but the novel’s pleasure was watching the whole thing play out.

Without spilling any spoilers, the novel focuses on a string of deaths connected to The Harper Institute of the Mind, a fictional and repurposed version of the Stowers Insitute, with a CEO focused on Alzheimer’s instead of cancer. Jack Davis, a former FBI agent who retired under suspicious circumstances after his daughter escaped with $5 million and who suffers from a mysterious neurological disorder, gets hired to look into the deaths before the Institute gets sued.

This book excels in its use of flawed characters. Jack Davis is spastic, and his sidekick is a former cop who went crooked. It seems everyone connected to by the Institute carries more baggage than an overhead bin on a weekend flight to Vegas, and the FBI agents are single-minded dimwits. At the end, we have an octogenarian, a crooked cop and an incapacitated hero going to confront the villain. Sherlock Holmes and Miss Jane Marple would be appalled, but it’s a likable and believable outcome.

The problems I had with the first book are largely avoided in this one. He mostly sticks with educated, majority characters, so he (thank goodness) avoids presenting a suburbanite’s understanding of what a poor black kid must feel. His dialogue is still clipped and terse, but Goldman has either learned to control his tendency toward ludicrous quips, or a wise editor out there spared us from some of the cringe-worthy exchanges that deflated “Shake Down”. One last quibble – toward the end of the novel, a journalist claims she will be doing follow-up stories in 5 years, and asserts, “I’m not going anywhere.” Mr. Goldman obviously failed to check on the career confidence of print journalists.

That said, this is simply a darned fun read. It’s exciting, engaging, and well-crafted. The Kansas City references enliven the book for a local reader, but the book is not dependent on them. I came to this book expecting to find material to mock, but I wound up staying up late last night, turning pages and promising myself to quit after just one more chapter. When I turned the last page, I knew that Joel Goldman had written a fine example of the genre.

Dr. Seuss’ Birthday

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

And I get to read a book of his to a bunch of kids at Brookside Day School, for my Rotary Club. Sounds like a nice way to start the day!

Shake Down – Joel Goldman’s WyCo Thriller

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

A while back, I received a free review copy of Shake Down, and I put off reading it until I had airplane time. Joel Goldman is a local lawyer, and this book is his 5th thriller. It’s set in the greater Kansas City area, with most of the action taking place in the Argentine area.

The first mystery presented is the title. Is it “Shakedown” or “Shake Down”? The author’s website and various reviews present it as a single word, while my copy has the compound word broken in half on the cover and spine. Like an empiricist detective, I’m sticking with what I see and using the two word approach.

Shake Down is kind of a fun read. It starts off with a multiple murder, and you know right off the bat who did it, but the mystery arises around the edges. Who fled the scene? Why is the central character suffering from episodes of shaking? Why does the voice switch from omniscient narrator to first person? Isn’t it kind of condescending for the author to write about residents of Quindaro like specimens in a petri dish of poverty? Why would an editor allow hilariously stilted dialog to appear in an apparently serious book?

Alright, some of those aren’t intended to be the mysteries presented, but they certainly arose in my mind upon reading the book . . .

How does one properly review a shameful pleasure?

Let me be positive – it was fun. I enjoyed reading about some of the nooks and crannies of Kansas City, and the portrayal of the law enforcement turf battles was interesting. The central character was a regular guy who we’re supposed to believe is smart enough to track down criminals, but not smart enough to keep his wife from meeting his girlfriend. If you’re interested in Kansas City, and enjoy mysteries, this book is a must-read.

But, sadly, that’s about all the positivity I can muster here. Without spoilers, I can only point out that the web of relationships that lies at the heart of the story is both transparent and unconvincing. Several of the plot turns are just goofy, such as the near-tragic decision on who will confront the murderer. And the resolution of the book is as wishy-washy as you can get with dead bodies spread all over the place. You never get a real explanation for the shaking condition which is so central to the entire book, and the central character’s romantic quandary remains unresolved.

But, those points aside, the real criticism of the book springs from the dialog. I annoyed my seatmate on the flight with several involuntary gasps and whoops of disbelief. Taken at random from the middle of the book:

“What do you want me to tell Troy?”
“Tell him the truth. Tell him that I asked you to help me and that, as far as you knew, I was acting in the course and scope of my official duties.”
“You call that the truth?”
“I call that enough of the truth. You helped me out. I’ll take the heat.”

That’s just a small sample of the tough guy, clipped language served up throughout the novel. If I were cruel, I would have hunted up some of the dialog between the main character and his middle-aged fantasy girlfriend. It’s kind of like taking Guy Noir from Prairie Home Companion and plopping him into an eHarmony commercial.

I’ve struggled with writing this review. Really, this book is awful – execrable dialog with an implausible plot, and minority characters who are so shallow I would accuse the author of racism if he had demonstrated he could write believable characters of any ethnicity.

But, despite all that, I enjoyed reading the book. And, when you’re talking about a mystery/thriller set in your hometown, that’s probably enough. I had a few laughs, it kept the pages turning, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for fun airplane or beach reading.

John S. Zinsser, Jr. Reaches the End of His Term of Years on Earth, and Passes Away

Friday, June 13th, 2008

Verbosity prevails.