Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book Review - Prague Winter, Madeleine Albright

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948


Madeleine Albright

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: History; Czechoslovakia; WWII

Synopsis: Secretary of State under President Clinton, Albright recounts the events and aftermath of World War II in her homeland of Czechoslovakia.

Date finished: 2 September 2013  

Rating: ****


Two things.

First, my definition of “personal history” differs widely from Secretary Albright’s. I knew I was in for a different reading experience when I realized Albright was much too young during World War II to have much of any remembrance of it. So, out of necessity, this book relies on historical accounts and her father’s personal papers to piece together not only the war but her family’s life before, during, and after it. But do not confuse this book, as I did, to be a memoir. It most decidedly is not.

Second, do not, as I did, expect to see any American history in this book. This is a history of Czechoslovakia, its entry into WWII, and the aftermath of the war. When recounting the events of the war, Albright’s scope extends to other countries in Europe as well as Russia, but America is mentioned more in passing than anything. I believe the words “Pearl Harbor” were mentioned, but only once as I remember. Her state allegiance here is not to the country she served as Secretary of State, it is to her homeland. This made me (can you tell?) a little defensive. But more defensive out of boredom (forgive me, Czechs) for learning about ancient Bohemia than a perceived lack of statehood impropriety on Albright’s part.

Once I got over my disillusionment of expectation—not to mention the early chapters of Czech history, which almost made me quit reading—I learned to enjoy the book. It is quite academic, and at times it read like a textbook. More than occasionally, though, the author used a word like “absurd” or “ill-fated” in an explanation of a leader’s actions or beliefs. This took it out of the realm of unbiased textbook (as if they exist…) and made it ever-so-slightly more personal. This rendered it infinitely more readable.

What I was most interested in, and what made me buy the book after dithering over it for a year or so, was the fact that Albright didn’t know her family were Jews until she was in the process of becoming Secretary of State. She spends the first six decades of her life believing she’s a Catholic, not knowing that 20 of her relatives perished in Nazi concentration camps. Her parents take this knowledge to their grave. Although she dealt with this revelation in this book, she didn’t speak of it in depth at all. She postured some guesses as to her parents’ reasons for “converting” though since they were secular Jews, and since they converted before the news of the death camps had spread throughout Europe, this part of the story never came to much. Going in, I thought it was to be the heart of the book. (I haven’t read her autobiography Madame Secretary, and perhaps this part of her history is discussed in more depth there. In fact, I believe she may have made reference to that in her introduction of this book.)

I enjoyed the refresher of WWII history, even if I didn’t retain much of it. It brought me back to my Western Civilization class in college. What I came away from the book with was not only a sadness over what man is capable of—every single life in Europe was changed by the action of one man—but also what nationalism means, and what it should mean. America seems to be at low ebb when it comes to national pride. Have we reached a point in American history (and perhaps it’s this way with other countries now, I don’t know) where our cynicism outweighs our love of country? Or have we come to a point in American history (and again, perhaps world history) where patriotism must fall to more important concerns? I can’t decide. On the one hand, nothing swells my heart like seeing my neighbors flying the flag or seeing a man’s hand over his heart at the national anthem. On the other hand, as I read the history of Czechoslovakia and what she’s gone through for democracy (at least twice), I realize every country on earth has a history rife with triumph and bloodshed—often triumph because of bloodshed. Perhaps those two hands aren’t so far apart? It’s food for thought at any rate.

All in all, I’m glad I stuck with the book. And I’m glad my expectations could fall away to an open mind, because I really did enjoy this learning experience.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, with caveats.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review - The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie


Wendy McClure

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Projects & Adventures

Synopsis: McClure revisits Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on a Prairie books and sets out to visit the historic sites in the books.

Date finished: 27 August 2013

Rating: ***½

I have a confession to make: I never read the Little House on the Prairie books. I remember starting Little House on the Prairie, but I likely didn’t finish it. And here’s the bigger confession: I watched the TV show, and I just couldn’t identify with the Laura in the book after knowing the Melissa Gilbert's Laura so well. McClure would be so disappointed in me, and I’d probably be labeled as “one of those” Little House fans.

I didn’t know there were two camps of LHOP followers, but the book fans despise the liberties taken in the TV show, and the TV fans probably find the books a little boring. I don’t remember when I learned that the TV show wasn’t faithful to the books, but by that point I was already fully invested in the show.

This book didn’t exactly sort out the fact of the books from the fiction of the show, but I did pick up some things along the way. For instance, I’m still unsure if Mary married a guy named Adam, but I know she didn’t have a baby (Laura’s daughter Rose is the only grandchild of Pa and Ma Ingalls). Apparently, there was no Albert, James, or Cassandra in real life. And the show changed the pronunciation of Almanzo’s name to “Al-MON-zo.” And of course, they didn’t really blow up Walnut Grove like they did at the end of the series. That was Michael Landon shooting NBC the bird for cancelling the show.

The problem is, I’m not sure what this book was meant to be. I enjoyed it for a romp into my childhood, but not knowing the books, it wasn’t a very effective romp. The narrative was meandering and hard to follow. I couldn’t keep the books, homesteads, and states straight. And frankly, it just wasn’t that interesting. Maybe you have to be a more die-hard Laura fan (or at least a fan of the books). I don’t know. I just felt that this book should have been cut by a third, tightened up, and properly outlined. (A synopsis of the books would have been helpful, too.)

I didn’t come away from it wanting to read the LHOP books or necessarily visit the homestead sites—though one is just miles from where I live. Maybe I’m not very interested because I have a strong sense of what homesteading entailed. I have my family’s stories. My uncle’s family is the fourth generation to farm the same plot of land. My great-grandmother on my father’s side started the first school in the area on her farm. Other great-grandparents built the Presbyterian church in town. And of course, I grew up in a tiny town that never changed, living on a farm where we still canned, hunted, and prayed against drought. Maybe these experiences were close enough to the Laura experience to satisfy me.

I do remember, however, wanting a prairie bonnet awfully bad.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
A lover of the Little House books, yes. Others, probably not.

You might also enjoy:
Prairie Tale: A Memoir by Melissa Gilbert

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Book Review - Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express: A Hercule Poirot Mystery


Agatha Christie

Category: Fiction: Classic: Mystery

Synopsis: Twelve people are on a train when an old man turns up dead; it’s up to Hercule Poirot to find the murderer, who is presumably still on the train.

Date finished: 21 August 2013

Rating: ****½ 

You know how when you discover something that’s been around for decades, you still kind of feel like you’ve discovered it? Like no one else could possibly know what you know now? Well friends, I discovered Agatha Christie last month.

I had this hunch that although I don’t care much for fiction, I’d like a good mystery. So I got all adventurous and bought a copy of Murder on the Orient Express, then saved it for a “special reading occasion,” which turned out to be the Bout of Books read-a-thon. I wanted to be able to read it in one or two sittings, not in a week’s worth.

Was I disappointed? Not at all.

Was it exactly what I expected? Yes, it was. Oddly.

Did I guess whodunit? No, I didn’t. I kept ping-ponging between this character and that one. And I wasn’t entirely sure if Christie gives you all of the clues or if she keeps some for only Poirot to find. Having read only one of her books, I don’t know for sure, but this book did have some for-Poirot-only clues. Which does and doesn’t bother me.

I hesitate writing too much about it since that would dispel with the mystery. AND since, I’m one of the last readers on earth to read it. (The book’s bio says Christie’s books are more widely sold than any books on earth except for the Bible and Shakespeare.)

So, all in all, this was a nice jaunt into the land of fiction, and I am excited to read more of Christie’s work.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
In a heartbeat.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dear Universe...

...please bring this movie to Eau Claire, Wisconsin:

Thank you for your cooperation.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday (Fall 2013 TBR)

This week's Topic: Top Ten Books on My Fall 2013 TBR List

Anne Lamott
Help, Thanks, Wow

Sam Sifton

Jane Austen

Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Julia Child
My Life in France

Mardi Jo Link

Kevin Young (Ed)
The Hungry Ear

Max Garland
Hunger Wide as Heaven

Jen Lancaster
My Fair Lazy

Daphne Du Maurier

But then there are the books I plan to buy in the coming weeks, thereby throwing the above list out the window:

Anya Von Bremzen
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Ann Mah
Mastering the Art of French Eating

Michael Perry
Visiting Tom

Nicole Hardy
Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin

Billy Collins (Ed)
Bright Wings

Barbara A. Perry
Rose Kennedy

Agatha Christie
An Autobiography

Stacy Horn
Imperfect Harmony (won this from Citizen Reader)

Mary Oliver
Dog Songs: Poems

Billy Collins
Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems


Monday, September 16, 2013

Another Fall Release I'm Excited About

                                                                                                      No sooner had I posted my list of book releases I was excited about, than I got an email announcing this one. I plan to read his entire repertoire. In fact, I'd read his grocery lists if he'd publish them.                                                                                             
Due out October 22.
P.S. Love the cover!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Book Review - Winnie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne




A.A. Milne


Category: Children’s

Synopsis: A series of stories about Christopher Robin’s bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, and his friends.

Date finished: 19 August 2013

Rating: ****½

I love this silly old bear.

My goodness. Can you believe I’ve never read this book? We didn’t have a copy growing up, but several of the stories in it were very familiar. I know we had some Golden Book Pooh stories, so that must be my first encounter. I also read along hearing the characters’ voices which I attribute to an animated version of the stories. But I soon learned they’d taken some license with the characters for the cartoon audience. Pooh Bear was earnest and helpful, Piglet was naïve but sweet, Rabbit was sharp-tongued, Owl was wise, Eeyore was dour but still sort of friendly, and Kanga was sweet. All in all, a very palatable, if stereotypical, group. In the book, however, Pooh is a blockhead (stuffinghead?), Piglet is afraid of his own shadow, Rabbit is pretty mean, Owl is a poser, Eeyore is not someone you’d want to be around for any length of them, and Kanga is only looking out for number one (and number 1½, Roo).
I was surprised at the grittiness of the characters and their interactions—much more like real children’s interactions than the sanitized TV version. What the animated show had in sweetness, the book had in charm. Milne was brilliant in the way he related to children. So astute. So very clever.

So, although I’m one of the last adults on earth to have read this book, if you have never—or haven’t for a while—pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

My favorite moment, happening right at the end:

     “When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

     “What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say?”
     “I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

     “It’s the same thing,” he said.

P.S. One of the reasons I found this book so charming, I’m sure, is due to the copy I read. I borrowed the 1961 version from the university library’s IMC. It’s all threadbare, taped up, obviously much-loved, and lies completely flat when opened.
I was so enchanted by this particular edition that I hopped onto eBay and bought a copy of it and House at Pooh Corner. Absolutely mint, $10 for the pair. But I’d trade them in a minute for the very copy I read.

The copy I checked out (on the left) and the "new" old copy I bought on eBay. Aren't they wonderful?
I kind of have a feeling that when I return it, it will go directly to the Cataloging mend-it crew who will pronounce it a lost cause. Perhaps the withdrawn version will end up on the book sale shelf for me to buy!
Would you recommend this to a friend?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

God Bless America

May our nation never forget 9/11/01 or 9/11/12 until we embody the peace that is our promise.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Releases I'm Excited About

Seems like I seldom catch books on the front (pre-release) end, so in order to be an in-the-know cool kid, I’ve been lurking around on Amazon’s Coming Soon page lately. (Why did it take me so long to figure this out? Perhaps my good sense told me I had enough books to read. Good sense, I overrule you.)

Here are a few books that I’m anxiously awaiting:


Release date: September 17

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
Anya Von Bremzen

I usually get pretty turned off by books whose titles totally rip off classic books, but what can you do? This one combines my love of food and my love of learning about other countries. My reading hasn’t traveled to Russia yet this year.
You can read an excerpt from the book on the publisher’s website.



Release date: September 24

Kate Gosselin’s Love Is in the Mix: Making Meals into Memories with 108+ Family-Friendly Recipes, Tips and Traditions
Kate Gosselin

So, was I the only one who predicted the crash and burn of the Gosselin marriage? While I sort of miss watching the kids grow up, I’m glad their show was cancelled. I think it was best for all involved.
I don’t know why I’m so excited for this cookbook. I try not to buy many cookbooks, because I seldom use them, but from the preview, I think Kate might cook like I cook.
And maybe a part of me misses Kate irritating the heck out of me.


Release date: October 8

Dog Songs: Poems
Mary Oliver
The other day I was looking for a couple of Mary Oliver books to add to my poetry to read pile. I think I’ve enjoyed every one of her poems I’ve ever read, in spite of the fact that I’m not really a nature girl. In my search, I ran upon this one, and being about dogs, I’m all in.
Release date: October 29

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays: 135 Step-by-Step Recipes for Simple, Scrumptious Celebrations
Ree Drummond

I will buy and read every Pioneer Woman cookbook this woman ever produces. This is my solemn oath.

I showed my mother an episode of her show, then brought out my PW cookbooks, and she asked if I’d order them both for her. Ha. Another convert.

Pioneer Woman’s books are the only books I’ve ever bought in a BOOKSTORE for FULL PRICE.


Release date: March 4, 2014

Growing Up Duggar: The Duggar Girls Share Their View of Life inside America’s Most Well-Known Super-Sized Family
Jana, Jill, Jessa, & Jinger Duggar
I can’t deny that I’ve long wanted to be a Duggar girl. Now I can read all about it! I have no high expectations for the writing or even revelations of this book, but I think of the Duggar books as a visit to your great-aunt Agnes. There’s not much going on at her place, and the two of you don’t talk much about important things, but it’s a calm, comfortable, loving, place.
(Wanna hear me name all the Duggar kids? Josh Jana John-David Jill Jessa Jinger Joseph Josiah Joy-Anna Jedidiah Jeremiah Jason James Justin Jackson Johannah Jennifer Jordyn & Josie.)


So, that’s my list.
What releases are you looking forward to? And how do you find out about them?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review - Food Rules, Michael Pollan

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual


Michael Pollan

Category: Nonfiction: Food

Synopsis: Pollan’s understanding of best eating practices are distilled into 64 rules.

Date finished: 19 August 2013

Rating: ***½

I’d been thinking about reading one of Pollan’s books for a while now, just to see what all the fuss is about. But I had zero interest in learning much about the interworking of the body, the biology of digestion and nutrient absorption, or food propaganda. And then I found this book. Since it’s just the bones and not the meat and marrow of the raging food debate, I thought it would be perfect for giving me a taste of his theories. And in that respect, it did what it was meant to do. I got the essence without subjecting myself to studies in human nutrition, horror stories of herd animal mistreatment, and the neurological effects of pesticides.

 As for being devoid of propaganda? Hardly.

You either subscribe to what Pollan puts forth as fact, or you’re skeptical. But for his claim of studying everything and coming to the correct conclusions and magnanimously sharing the details with you for $26.95? Nah, not for me. I have no beef with the general gist: eat more plants and less meat, limit processed foods, etc. I have no beef with this because it’s common sense! I didn’t need Pollan to tell me that.

I was raised on a farm. We ate our own beef, drank our own (unpasteurized) milk, and grew our own vegetables. My mother baked using all-purpose flour and white sugar. It’s how my family has eaten for generations. And my grandparents lived into their 80s and 90s. You want to know why? Because they didn’t worry about food (or health). They knew not to live on Mt. Dew and Twinkies, but they allowed themselves to enjoy them. They didn’t fret over antioxidants and Omega3s. They didn’t go in for veganism or fad diets. They ATE.

So I eat. Yes, I think processed food has become a racket. The fact that everything is jacked up with high-fructose corn syrup or insane levels of sodium (not discussed in Pollan’s book, by the way) nowadays means that the industry has taken over our nutrition for us. And that’s terrible. (Has a can of Campbell’s soup always supplied 60-70% of your daily sodium, I wonder?)

So yeah, Pollan, preaching to the choir, but the fact remains, the author and his ilk are obsessed with this stuff. And the obsession shows through even in these 64 rules. I was surprised with that. I expected this book (if not his others) to present the “facts” as his sees them and then leave it up to his readers how to proceed. Instead, the book spends way too much time telling you what to eat, how to eat it, and how much of it to eat. This heavy-handed approach turned me off. Are adults really falling for this? Shiver.

He also gives the impression that we’re “allowed” to have unhealthy foods, but only, say, once or twice a year. And the impression is that said treats should be an extra half-cup of organic raspberries, never a handful of Doritos. When I read things by guys like Pollan, I think of my 97-year-old great-grandmother sitting in an easy chair nibbling on cucumbers and Cheetos and have a good chuckle.

Still, there were a few “rules” that I liked:

Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients. (pg. 15)

Eat only foods that will eventually rot. (pg. 29)

If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not hungry. (pg. 105)

Would you recommend this to a friend?
I don’t know. Maybe?

You might also enjoy:
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball           
The Feast Nearby, Robin Mather
The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, Kathleen Flinn

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Book Review - The Tao of Martha, Jen Lancaster

The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING; Or, Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter off of the Dog


Jen Lancaster

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Project; Home; Humor

Synopsis: Lancaster decides to apply knowledge gained from Martha Stewart to her home and garden.

Date finished: 16 August 2013

Rating: ****½

I’ve never read anything by Jen Lancaster, but I’ve long known about her and that she had a sizable following. I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and her newest book seemed as good a place as any to start.

For most of the book, I suffered low-grade annoyance. So many jokey jokes. So many pop culture references. So many swears. I figured I’d rate this as another average book. But somewhere after the 200-page point, she broke down my defenses, and I really started to enjoy the jokey jokes, the pop culture references, even the swearing. I confessed to my husband that I found it sort of hilarious when someone refers to her pet as an a--hole. Amiright?

This was a project book—which I love, but it was loosely so. She basically tries to up her domestic game and looks to The Great One, Martha Stewart, for guidance. And of course, she has lots of missteps along the way.

I felt like I really started to like and understand Lancaster by the end. She doesn’t make excuses for who she is or why she does what she does. She seems like a pretty secure woman. I was afraid this would be a book about a woman who’s clueless in the domestic realm, but I was pleasantly surprised that she and I had a similar skill set when it comes to home comforts.

As much as I ended up liking the book, I think it could have been strengthened with a good bit of tightening. It dragged in spots. And a steadier clip would have highlighted the humor, I think.

My favorite passage:
I dress like a page from an L.L.Bean catalog, circa 1983. The sexiest shoe I own is a tasseled loafer. I’m aware that I do not inspire anyone to say, “I’d like a piece of that,” when I pass, unless they’re referring to the cake I’m carrying. (page 239)

I’ll definitely look up her other books. Anyone have any suggestions as to where to start?

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yeah, why not.

 You might also enjoy:
Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin