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I was going to do a protracted rant about something else yesterday, but I got sidetracked by the Olympic opening ceremony which I haven’t really watched with any enthusiasm in years.  There is only so much of the “And here are our cutest children wearing costumes, carrying flowers, spinning ribbons and releasing balloons while doing ethnic dances” I can take in a lifetime.  I hoped Danny Boyle could ring some interesting changes on the whole big, gaudy spectacle but I wasn’t holding my breath.

Well by god, Danny Boyle gets my vote for the best opening ceremony in… ever.  Yeah it was still a big, gaudy spectacle with moments of real goofiness (Mr. Bean makes me ridiculously and pointlessly embarrassed, much as I love Rowan Atkinson.) But underneath it all — and no matter what Mr. Boyle says publicly — there was a core of pure liberal joy that made me want to get up and dance.

Now I confess the bucolic opening kind of put me off.  Yeah, green and pleasant land and all, but singing “Hey nonny” on the greensward was not an Olympic event last time I looked. After a bit of pastoral fol-de-rol,  the Industrial Revolution chugged onto the scene with frock-coated industrialists smugly supervising the uglification of that pretty landscape, huge, ugly smokestacks, and smudged workers who didn’t so much cavort as trudge.  The commentators on NBC cheerfully told their viewers that this was a tribute to the industrialization that made Britain great, as clouds of sulfur-scented smoke wafted out of the chimneys and into the stands.  Ken Branagh recited Caliban’s “Be not afeared” speech from “The Tempest” and those frock-coated capitalists did a little dance as their money piled up.  I said to Glinda that it seemed odd to me to be celebrating the kind of industry that will eventually put all of the UK under water. I still wasn’t quite getting it, though later as I reflected on the forging of one of the five Olympic rings, the symbolism pretty much hit me over the head with one of those hammers.

And then things got really strange.  There was a tribute to the National Health Service which is so maligned by the right wing in this country.  ”Oh no,” they say “It’s horrible.  They hate it in England!”  Well right there in front of God and everybody, the commentators read their notes which explained how beloved the NHS is in England.  And I whooped and shouted “Suck that, tea baggers!”  Poor Glinda, who had gone out to the kitchen for a moment said “What the hell is happening?”

Then there was a children’s nightmare sequence which was an odd sort of tribute to children’s literature, when you think about it, and the children were rescued from their night time horrors by a whole platoon of Mary Poppinses.  (Possibly a spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down.) It all ended with a gigantic baby about which I agreed with the commentator who said he found it kind of creepy.

The Frankie and June segment was a good-humored, and relentlessly multi-racial, tech love story.  I particularly liked that the kids who really represented the face of the new generation were mixed-race.  The commentators talked about how charismatic they were,

and they were charming, but what I saw first was dark skin.  And it was pleasing in my eyes, as was the video montage that followed Frankie and June’s first kiss which included a lesbian kiss and made me yell “GIRLKISSING!” and then, as the montage ended: ”WHERE’S THE BOYKISSING?”  You can’t ask for everything, I guess.  It was a damn inspiring moment.  And then, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web appeared, and tapped out this message for the world: “This is for everyone.”  Again, suck that everyone who wants to censor and control the internet!  It’s for everyone; Sir Tim says so and he invented it.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the sheer goofiness and good humor of H.M. parachuting out of a helicopter over the stadium, accompanied by James Bond.  You want to talk indelible images?  That’s the one people will be talking about for years. (And it was not lost on me that Daniel Craig is hot like burning, and believe me when I tell you I would hit that like the fist of an angry god if he gave me half a chance.)

I loved the rock and roll because British rock changed popular music several times over.  I got a bit misty as  I watched the torch being carried along the Thames in a motorboat piloted by David Beckham, and I cried when the Olympic flag was brought to Muhammed Ali .

I am not unaware that while rock is both the music of the people and of youth, punk and rap, which was prominently featured in the show, is the music of the disaffected and disenfranchised and I don’t think that its inclusion was an accident.  Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that the torch was carried in accompanied by an honor guard comprised of 500 of the workers who actually built the Olympic stadium, or that the people who carried the Olympic flag into the stadium were:

So really, I don’t care how many times someone says that no, there wasn’t any political content, I saw what I saw, and it made me very happy.  I loved hearing Paul McCartney sing “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better.” because for a short space of time, this event, this coming together in the brotherhood of sports is a way to take all the sad songs and make them a little better for a time.  It’s a way to help people recognize that we’re all sharing the same planet, we all have the same needs, and working together, we  can make things better.

Mirrored from Persimmon Frost.

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To discourage seed predators, pulses contain t...

There's no point to doing this project unless I start digging down and using some of the less attractive stuff that's sitting in my pantry, by which I mean, food items that I look at and think, "What the hell was I thinking when I bought that?"  One of those things is a whole array of lentils.  I have a jar of green, half a jar of black and a metric fucktonne of red lentils.  I suppose I bought them during one of my bouts of "I'm going to get healthy/go vegan/be an earth mother" and the good thing is that they can sit there forever and not really suffer for it.  The bad thing is that they're always sitting there staring accusingly at me.

So this morning, I cooked up some lentils because I wanted to make a lentil salad.  I'd found a couple of interesting recipes on the internet and really wanted to give it a try.  I used green, red and black because I thought it'd be nice to have a multi-colored salad.  Yeah you lentil eaters know what I'm going to say. What I got out of the pot was a big, mushy glop of black lentils. So now I know to cook them for a shorter time and to NOT cook black lentils with anything else. They were too mushy for salad so I stirred them up with olive oil, lemon juice, a packet of dip mix from Wildwood Specialty Foods (Jalapeno-green chile) and some lemon-garlic marinade from The Spice House. Roasted, chopped walnuts and salt to taste, and I have a KILLER dip. I am not kidding when I say it was so good that I kept on eating way past where I should have stopped and now I'm regretting it. I also regret that I won't be able to reproduce it because that dip mix was from a store in the wilds of Wisconsin  (The Elegant Farmer; they make pies that are to die for.) and the company website is pretty unhelpful.

Well really, I shouldn't say I won't be able to reproduce it. I've got a list of what's in the mix:  onions, garlic, jalapeno pepper, green chili pepper, parsley and chives.   So I know it's an oniony mix, and that the amount of garlic in it wasn't enough to get the flavor I wanted so I'd need extra garlic in any event.  The peppers are easy as is the parsley, so I can probably get close with what I have in my spice cabinet.  This is a great thing because it's a pretty healthy dish, and also versatile.  I can use it as a dip, a spread, or mix it into broth for a soup.  I'm sure I'll think of other applications.

I also finally baked the tofu I'd been marinating for several weeks (not on purpose, I just got sidetracked) and it's really tasty. I marinated it in Litehouse sesame ginger salad dressing and baked it @ 350 for half an hour. Then I turned off the heat and let it sit. The result is that I have cubes of tofu with the consistency of soft caramel and a fantastic flavor. I've been snacking on them right out of the fridge.  I haven't been too nuts about the Litehouse line as dressings, but as marinades they're really very good.  I see they have a new cherry vinaigrette that looks tempting.

I expect I'm babbling on here about healthy food in part because I've been taking a lot of flak about my review of "The Blood Sugar Solution."  Now bear in mind that I gave the book four stars and said that I thought it was a valuable resource.  Apparently that's not good enough for the rah-rah brigade.  They're all over me because I suggested that 1) the process might be too expensive to jump into feet first and 2) that it might be too huge a change for many people, and perhaps a slower approach could bring people to the same point with less attrition.   Since the review went live two days ago I've been informed that anyone can do the program you just have to want to do it, with the unspoken implication that those who can't do it are somehow morally deficient and didn't want to from the get-go.  I've also been told that if you can afford a burger you can afford the program.  Leaving out the cost of the book for a moment, I would say that a $3 burger is vastly different from having to throw out all the food in your house and start over with only approved items.

So far I've been responding politely, though the last comment which accused me of pre-programming my own failure, got a snarky response.  But I have to admit I'm losing patience.  I don't consider haranguing to be valuable motivation.  If someone asks for your cheerleading, then by all means break out the pom-poms and the brass band.  I wrote a positive review which expressed some concerns.  I didn't say it was impossible, I didn't say not to try, I didn't say it could never work.  I said, take a moment to consider your needs and prioritize them.  Then approach the program with those priorities in mind, always intending to reach the point where you do spend those six weeks eating the way Dr. Hyman suggests.

On the plus side, 116 of 120 people thought my review was valuable to them.  That's only four people who didn't, the four presumably, who left comments.

And finally, on my way back from the garbage cans this afternoon, I noted that the garlic sprouts are starting to get quite tall.  That's exciting.  Our garlic was excellent last year and this year we'll be using garlic grown from garlic that we grew ourselves.  How cool is that?  I'm looking forward to the first scapes in late spring.  Glinda and I have been talking about the garden all winter, and one of the biggest thrills, for me at least, is seeing it start to come to life.  The chard is still coming up -- we have a local bunny who grazes on it -- and I see the first buds on the nectarine,which means it's time to get out there and prune.  The mint is sprouting along with all the bulbs, and the ferns never died back.  They're big and lush and green; even more so than they were in the fall.

Frankly, we didn't have much of a winter and that worries me, but at the same time I'm really looking forward to spring this year.    

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 About three years ago, I wrote a review of a toilet seat on Amazon.com.  I reviewed it because I have an opinion about everything, and I'm a writer.  It's that or op ed, right?  Reviews are less stressful, or were until tonight when I got an email saying that there'd been a new comment on the review.  This happens.  From time-to-time people will ask questions about something I've written, or something they thought I might have failed to note.  But this one was different.

"It seems like you work for Bemis. Your review is long winded and you keep bringing up the name. Most consumers don't do that. There are people that get paid to leave product reviews and yours sure seems like it. The BBB is investigating this issue right now."

My first response, after the hysterical laughter, was that I can't wait to be investigated by the Better Business Bureau over a toilet seat.  I mean seriously, here's a toilet seat review that someone is so torqued about that s/he's writing the Better Business Bureau and asking for an investigation based on a long-winded (oh burn!) review and the fact that I mention the name Bemis a lot.

Well I plead guilty on the long-winded part.  I didn't feel really good about leaving a review that said: "This is a good seat.  I like this seat.  I like to sit on this seat and do my business."   However this mentioning the name too much has me stumped.  What was I supposed to call the thing, George?

I posted the link on Facebook to the vast amusement of my friends who are putting in their orders for free toilet seats because of course the truth is that I wrote a review three years ago and Bemis has paid me with a new toilet seat every week since then.  I'm using them as picture frames and cutting boards.  Haute couture cannot be far down the road for me and my seats.

I actually get a kick out of thinking that there's someone out there who is so invested in this toilet seat review and who has so much time on his/her hands, that s/he can demand an investigation into possible malfeasance over a toilet seat.  There are worse ways to spend your Monday nights, y'know.  There's a little part of me that would love to see this turn into one of those famously crazy Amazon review threads where random strangers post bizarre comments.  If you feel so moved (pun intended) knock yourself out.  

 

English: Antalya ( Turkey ). Toilet seat used ...
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One of the most beloved cookbooks in my collection is the Moosewood Cookbook. I've had it since God was a boy, and it looks it with stains and scuffs and pages that are all bendy or wrinkled from getting damp, a broken spine and the occasional note. I love that book because it's free-spirited and whimsical, and the recipes are darn good.

So today I've been reading through "Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health" and while I'm appreciating the nutritional information, and the thoughtful way of approaching the subject of vegetarian/vegan cooking, for me it's missing something. Certainly it's not information of any sort. In addition to nutritional info for each recipe, there are sections on organics -- with info on pesticide levels in common fruits and veggies -- phytonutrients, food allergies, fish, the ingredients used, cooking methods, resources, and so on. And I can't possibly fault the recipes since they're classic Moosewood, both new and riffs on old favorites.

But along with all the emphasis on nutrition, sustainability, and organics, comes a new kind of seriousness which I really do get and appreciate. Gone are the goofy little drawings and asides on most pages, replaced by lovely, sedate drawings at the heads of chapters, and the aforementioned nutritional info. I doubt there's a spontaneous "YUM!" on any page. And I miss it.

So while the Moosewood cookbooks remain go-to references for any basic vegetarian/vegan kitchen, don't expect a lot of the old Moosewood spirit in this volume. It's all grown-up now and it takes food much more seriously than it used to.
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Two of my best friends recommended this book to me, and I'm glad they did because I probably wouldn't have picked it up on my own. Presidential assassinations? Uh... no thanks. I was alive to see the assassinations of a number of prominent people, and frankly, that seemed like enough for me. Besides, with all due respect to James Garfield and William McKinley, I really didn't have much interest in their lives much less their deaths. Fortunately Ms Vowell doesn't take a dry, just-the-facts-ma'am approach to her subject. She's funny, curious, a little strange, and willing to do a lot of leg-work to learn what she wants... needs to know about the deaths of the three Presidents (Lincoln is the third) which form the basis of her book.

Predictably, Lincoln's chapter is the longest. He's the best-known of the three, and possibly the only one still truly mourned in this country. But much of the narrative is about following the trail of John Wilkes Booth from the time where he plotted with other southerners to kidnap President Lincoln, through the actual assassination in Ford's Theater (Booth timed his shot to a line in the play which always produced a good deal of laughter, so that the report from his gun would be less noticed. Clearly it was his intention to escape, but in choosing that moment, he shot the President in the middle of a good belly laugh, and I don't think I'm alone in believing that if you have to be mortally wounded or killed, it's not a bad note on which to go out.) along the path of his flight, during which Vowell becomes convinced of the guilt of Dr. Mudd, and finally to being burned out of a barn and dying shortly thereafter, in great agony, a fact which was underlined, probably with a measure of satisfaction, in the official report of his death. It's also in this chapter that Vowell introduces us to Robert Todd Lincoln who could easily have been considered a Presidential jinx for her was at or near all three of the assassinations Vowell writes about. (Jinxy McDeath, as Vowell calls him in a note at the start of the final chapter.)

McKinley's chapter is most interesting for the portrait she paints of his successor, Teddy Roosevelt, a far more complex man that I'd ever imagined. But the surprise of the book by far, is the chapter on James A. Garfield, a man about whom I'd known next to nothing. (He was President, he was assassinated.) It turns out that this quiet man who never wanted to be President, was a man after my own heart, a man who would have preferred to go home and read than do anything else. Reading about how his political party attempted to manipulate and use him, made me feel very sad. That he rose to the occasion and chose to do what his conscience dictated made me like him all the more. I confess that after reading this chapter, I did a search to see if there were any Garfield libraries, feeling that it would be a shame if this man had never been commemorated by the one thing he would appreciate more than anything else, a library. As it happens, after his death, his widow had a wing added to the family home as a memorial library, and this is what set the precedent for all Presidential libraries. That's a cool legacy, in my opinion.

One of the things I like to do after I finish a book is to skim the reviews here on Amazon.com to see what others thought of it. I do note that there are a number of one-star reviews which seem kind of cranky about Ms. Vowell's politics, though they play very little part in her actual reporting of the facts of these assassinations, in my opinion, so I can only conclude that they simply don't like her because she's a liberal and it has nothing to do with the stories she's telling. Knee-jerk politics at its best.

One reviewer complains that "she references every movie star, TV personality, or musician that she has ever encountered" to which I say "Dude, what book were YOU reading?" Yes, there are pop culture references, and there's a reason for that which I'll get to in a minute, but unless Emma Goldman has her own talk show, or Frank Lloyd Wright is alive and well and fronting a rock band, I'm gonna say that this accusation is way off the mark. Of course this is the same reviewer who says "At times it seems that she is making up reasons to tell stories of something that have nothing to do with the topic of the book." and for that I have to thank him because he's hit upon an important fact about Ms Vowell's approach -- pop culture references and all -- to her topic. This book is about connecting to these people and events. It's not a sit-down-and-be-quiet-this-is-HISTORY-book, it's a lively and very personal exploration of events that are important to Vowell, important enough to spend a lot of time, energy and money pursuing. And yes, I did connect with the events in ways I never thought possible. And the people. Though I'd never before even considered the assassins (with the exception of Booth, and then only in passing) I found myself annoyed with Booth and his idiotic Southern jingoism, both amused and horrified by Guiteau who was most probably certifiable, and vaguely sorry for Czolgosz, who, apart from his unpronounceable name ("Sszholgoats? He's a foreigner, so what can you expect?" He wasn't.) pretty much remained a sad non-entity in spite of his world-changing action.

As with all things, your mileage may vary, and you might hate the way Vowell writes. You might want a nice, dry recitation of facts and figures, and if so, cool, more power to you. But if you enjoy a reverently irreverent point of view, and a narrative that bespeaks a curious and lively mind, then check out Sarah Vowell.
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I borrowed this one from my housemate who borrowed it from the library, and frankly I'm glad neither of us paid for it because I can't say that I think it's worth the asking price. The oddest thing, for me at least, is that for all Mann is an editor, he's not a very good writer. I'd call him competent...mostly. His words all fit together and you know what he's talking about, but there's no sparkle to his prose. He also uses idioms which frankly sound wrong for their time and place, phrases such as "Are you okay?" Yes, I do know the etymology of "okay," nobody needs to cite it. It still sounds out of place in the mouth of a late Victorian gentleman as does him saying "For the hell of it." particularly in front of a lady. Similarly the use of "alright" within the narrative is something which is likely to throw an educated reader out of the story entirely. Mann should know better.

It's not just the language which suffers here either, but also the conventions of good story-telling. Within the space of two chapters, a character explains a situation in exactly the same way to two different people. Now this may not sound like a big deal but it's just another point at which a reader is likely to be jarred out of the story. We've heard the information once, we don't need to have it repeated almost verbatim. That's bad story-telling. Nor is the deus-ex-machina device (Which, now I think of it, sounds like a wonderful steampunk invention, doesn't it?) used in conjunction with Sir Maurice's encounter with the revenants any better in terms of story-telling. (I'm trying not to spoil anyone here; you'll know it when you see it.) It was, in fact, at that point that I came aboutthisclose to throwing the book across the room, however I reminded myself that the library might look darkly upon such an act and I restrained myself.

If there is a strong point in this book, it's the characterization, and even that is sometimes a little thin. Veronica and her sister are probably the most interesting characters. In spite of Veronica's annoying obsession with tea, she's a fairly well-drawn character, and rather refreshing. Her sister -- though interesting in a tragic way -- seems to exist solely as a plot point and possibly the set-up for a future adventure, which is a shame. The male characters teeter on the edge of being interesting, but there's something missing, some essential spark which would help them to propel the plot.

Someone called this book a pastiche, and I'd agree in the sense that it's a kind of hodge-podge. Even so, the lack of consistency in Mann's use of the elements makes the label less complimentary than the reader might hope.

The cover trumpets: "STEAMPUNK is making a comback, and with this novel MANN IS LEADING THE CHARGE..." I wasn't aware that steampunk had gone anywhere, nor do I think that Mann is necessarily either savior of or heir to the movement.

The Affinity Bridge (Newbury & Hobbes Investigation)

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The life of an expat American has always held a kind of allure for readers. Between the World Wars, jazz age writers and artists populated the cafes and salons of Paris, writing, arguing, drinking coffee and making art, talking poltics and guzzling champagne. And ever since then, France has been something of the holy grail for the American romantic. Its expatriate history, both real and imagined, is rich and exciting.

The years after WWII were like a collective sigh of relief for young people. War was over, time to throw themselves into life again. And among those who do so with ferocity is Sally Jay Gorce, the Dud Avocado. She's a young woman who is so full of life she doesn't begin to know how to spend it. Her ambitions finally bring her to Paris, and into the orbit of an American theater and its director with whom she decides to fall in love.

In spite of her feelings for Larry, she does tend to take up with other men at an almost alarming rate, and much of the book details her romantic entanglements and how they never quite mesh. Even her feelings for Larry prove problematic in the end, and after a vivid, frenetic and troubling year in France, all she wants is to go home and become a librarian.

It's difficult to dislike Sally unless you're scandalized by her. She's a smart girl, but she has no sense, which is as much a function of her age as of the way she's trying to live her life. Perhaps she does have an unfair advantage in rich uncle Roger who bankrolls her time in Paris, and helps her out of the enormous hole she's dug herself into. But through it all, she is just so filled with life, so open to whatever it brings that it's hard not to be rooting for her to find her destiny, no matter who or what that might be. When Sally's illusions shatter, it doesn't destroy her. She is sadder and wiser, but no less determined to find her own way.

"The Dud Avocado" is apparently one of those books which gets rediscovered by each new generation, and perhaps that's because it speaks to the youth and hope in all of us. We all start out determined to live life on our own terms, we all learn hard lessons, and if we're tough and lucky, we bounce back the way Sally Jay does, stronger for what we've experienced. I think this is a book for everyone who lives with hope and an open heart.

The Dud Avocado (New York Review Books Classics)
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Honestly I don't know what people are thinking when they market books anymore. The blurb on this book would have you believe that it's not only a laugh riot -- except for the beach scene which is "horrific" -- but that it's so remarkably written and in some way so easy to spoil that it all but swears the reader to a code of silence. And in fact, it's none of those things. All those marketing ploys actually do a disservice to an excellent book and if I were the author, I'd hate it that my work was being so misrepresented.

Briefly, "Little Bee" is about a young Nigerian refugee whose very existence changes the lives of a group of English citizens in dramatic ways. It's a good story and well-written but it would be silly of me to say that I don't want to tell you more because I don't want to spoil it for you. That would feel like me saying "I have NO idea what this is about."

It's about sadness. Really. It's not funny, except perhaps in small details where you might find yourself smiling ruefully. It's a sad book filled with sad and often thoughtless people. It's about how we cover our sadness with layers of so-called civilization, wrap our fears in popular culture, and never ever have the opportunity to face any of it and learn to rise above. Little Bee knows how to rise above. She's known how to do it her whole life because there's nowhere to hide in her country. Poverty, abuse and death are common where she is from, and if you don't want them to destroy you, they must be transcended.

I read the first two chapters just waiting for the comedy to begin. I waited for the beach scene with a measure of anxiety. I waited for some enormous surprise which I would long to tell others, but would keep to myself out of a sense of reader's decency. And each time, I found the truth to be something quite different. I'm actually happy about that because, for me at least, it means I was reading a book that might not be dismissed in a year or even a month as some pop cultural flash. It's a book which should make you think about the world and your place in it, and about what we owe to one another as human beings on this increasingly small, spinning globe.

I found it profoundly moving.


Little Bee: A Novel

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The sandwich is a creature born of convenience, and a certain amount of negligence, a Just-slap-it-on-a-slice-of-bread-and-I'm-outta-here mentality. So when someone comes along and raises the lowly sandwich to a work of art, it's worth a look. Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortúzar have done just that with “'wichcraft” a beautiful book that takes sandwiches to a higher level.

The book is broken down by the sort of sandwich you might want to create: Breakfast, cold sandwiches which are particularly well-suited for lunches, and hot sandwiches which are heartier. There is also a section on sweet sandwiches which range from sandwich cookies to towers built of cake slices, ice cream and fruit. While there are some familiar sandwiches such as BLTs, most are either new takes on other dishes such as Salad Lyonnaise or very new concoctions such as the beer-braised beef short ribs with pickled vegetables, sharp cheddar and horseradish. There are also sections on sandwich information: The history of the sandwich, good sandwich architecture and so forth. There is even a section on the sandwich as a meal, and how less is more when it comes to piling the food on the plate. Excellent advice.

If I have a problem with this book, it's a minor one, but still worth discussing. Many of the sandwiches require a number of special ingredients. Now granted you can make many of these yourself; the recipes are included. But it almost pre-supposes that you're cooking for more than one or two people. And leftovers are often good for a week, which means you'll either be eating the same sandwich all week, or throwing a lot of relishes and garnishes out. I don't think this will keep many people from creating the sandwiches in the book, but it might mean they'll make them less often, or substitute other ingredients.

On the whole, though, I think that if you're a sandwich lover as I am, this book will set you to imagining all the amazing sandwiches you might whip up. It might provoke you to entertain more!

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As the religious right gained in influence and power over the last few decades, challenging the all-important separation of church and state in the U.S., the character of mainstream Christianity has changed as well. Lured by the money and power, it's attracting more than its share of snake-oil salesmen who preach that we are on an equal footing with God, and have only to voice our desires vigorously, and He will have no choice but to grant them! It would also seem that poverty is a sin (notwithstanding the numerous New Testament citations which would seem to suggest just the opposite) creating a culture of I'm-rich-therefore-I'm-right.

Hank Hanegraaff does a good job of presenting these post-modern heresies in a fairly clear light, naming names and showing how each of the so-called religious leaders in question stray from scriptural truth with twisted interpretations of the Bible. What Hannegraff does not manage to do is to hold the attention of anyone who is not immersed in contemporary Christian thought. I know it's going to lose readers because it's dry and, a little gimmicky. The moment I see people creating acronyms, using mnemonics, or making charts to explain religious concepts my eyes glaze over. Personally I think most people have the intelligence to follow a simple, orderly argument. Nevertheless it helps to expose the charlatans in contemporary Christian society, and points out the errors and outright lies which allow them to ply their trade.

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Even if you are not familiar with the name "Bloomsbury" you will probably recognize the name of "Virginia Woolf." You might even know that she was a literary star in England in the first half of the 20th century. You might even know that she was the center of a group of talented, well-educated and often brilliant people who helped shape thought between the wars and beyond. John Maynard Keynes, the economist, whose economic model helped to bring the world out of the Great Depression, was one of Woolf's friends. You may know that Virginia died before WWII, a suicide who had for many years suffered from mental illness. What you might not know is that Virginia was only one of a pair of twin suns around whom this large, amorphous group revolved. The other, her elder sister Vanessa, an artist, was the other, the one who shone less fiercely, but who outlived her sister by many years.

The Stephen sisters, Vanessa and Virginia were the products of the Victorian era, and daughters of a selfish, domineering father. But upon his death, the young women struck out on their own to follow their instincts rather than the smothering rules by which they'd been raised. Virginia, who had been systematically molested by half-brother, George, entered into what became a sexless marriage with Leonard Woolf who nevertheless lived to care for her, becoming what Vanessa refers to within the book as the "apotheosis" of their devoted mother. Vanessa married Clive Bell, but both she and her husband seemed to tire of their relationship, and engaged in affairs with other people. The great love of Vanessa's life, at least according to this book, and I see no reason to doubt it since it does agree with what I've read of her, was the artist Duncan Grant. He was homosexual and was introduced into their circle as the lover of Vanessa's younger brother, Adrian. But Duncan also became her lover of many years and fathered her daughter, Angelica, who would later marry Grant's former lover, David Garnett. To say that the relationships in Bloomsbury were complicated is to understate.

What Sellers has done in "Vanessa and Virginia" is to explore the relationship between the sisters through the eyes of the less well-known Vanessa. She weaves the threads of their lives so deftly that it's difficult not to believe that we are reading something written by Vanessa. She explores the poles of sisterhood, both the attachment and the rivalry that complicate every interaction. She also allows us to watch the changes which happen within and outside of Vanessa's life, though from something of a distance, reinforcing the strength of the bonds of sisterhood. There is no one else in Vanessa's life, not even Duncan Grant, who has such a grip on her life as Virginia does.

Why not a biography instead of fiction? Perhaps because biographies can't, or at least should not presume to tell us what the principals are thinking, what their motives were. They can only report facts and occasionally speculate on the deeper, unspoken and unexamined currents of a person's life. But within the confines of a novel, all is fair. Sellers never demands a greater suspension of disbelief than that she is able, through the facts of Vanessa's life and a study of her art, to put herself into Vanessa's heart and mind. Because of this, she does succeed in convincing us of the truth of what she's written. She gives us an unconventional love story that will leave us aching, but satisfied because we have seen more deeply into this woman's heart than any biographer could have taken us.

Vanessa and Virginia isn't an easy read. It requires patience and attention. You don't need to know anything about Bloomsbury, but your enjoyment of the novel will of course be greater if you do. It works on virtually any level of familiarity. If you have any interest at all in the era, in Bloomsbury, in the life of Virginia Woolf, I think you'll enjoy V&V. If you have none of these things, but are still capable of being moved by a story of sisters and their bonds, then I think V&V might well please you, too.

Vanessa and Virginia



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cloud berriesIf, like me, you read cookbooks like other people do novels, or brood over handsome color photos in them as if reading a coffee table book, then you will love Falling Cloudberries. It is a perfectly beautiful book, loaded with glorious images, not only of food, but of the author's family -- the source of her love of food and many of the dishes presented in the book -- and the places where she has lived or traveled.

The recipes themselves are generally simple variations on regional favorites from Finland, Greece, Cyprus, South Africa, Italy and a few other countries where Kiros or her family members have traveled. I tend to prefer simple recipes, not only because they are just faster and easier to create, but because I believe they give a clearer idea of the flavors of a place. (I always think that one of the best ways to understand another culture is to eat their food.) The more complex recipes tend to show what a culture eats during celebrations, and that's a lesson, too.

But one of the most interesting facets of this book is seeing these recipes virtually side-by-side which allows us to understand how the same basic ingredients can be made into so many different dishes with so many different flavors, just by virtue of the herbs and spices used, or what produce tends to dominate in a place.

Falling Cloudberries is a Gourmet bookclub selection and for good reason. It's a stunning book filled with recipes that virtually anyone can master. It gives us clearer ideas of how cuisines overlap and how they make use of local flavors to create regional cuisines. If you love cookbooks, you couldn't do much better than to add this one to your collection.

Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes

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Tracy Rowan

August 2013

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