Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
What we eat says a mouthful about where we come from, who we think we are and even who we want to be.
Behind every lesson of who conquered whom are tales of ingredients adopted and utensils borrowed. For every settler’s tale, there was a beloved skillet or a box of seeds — clutched in fear, homesickness and hope — that came on the journey.
That’s why I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Mark Kurlansky’s newest book, The Food of a Younger Land. Once upon a time, America did eat local. This book is “a portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional and traditional.”
Kurlansky has compiled some of the writings collected through the Federal Writers Project, a federal stimulus program undertaken by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression (the one in the 1930s). For America Eats, writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty documented in poetry, prose and recipes everyday meals as well as special gatherings. These reports were snapshots of cultural history and economic conditions across the United States. America Eats began in 1939 but was abandoned due to the war and never finished.
The book is divided into the same regions used by the Federal Writers Project: Northeast, South, Middle West (I wish we still used that description), Far West, Southwest.
In the description of a New York Literary Tea, it is pointed out that tea is generally not served. Martinis and Manhattans hold court, with a nod to scotch if absolutely necessary.
New York Soda-Luncheonette Slang and Jargon are decoded in five pages. (Luncheonette: another word gone by the wayside). “Twist it, choke it and make it cackle” refers to a chocolate malted milk with egg.
There is a description for making Hickory Ta-fulla, a Choctaw dish in which corn grits are cooked in a milk made from hickory nuts soaked in water.
Zora Neale Hurston’s heretofore unpublished piece is “Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” describing a mythical place with good food in abundance, particularly barbecue. “Even the dogs can stand flat-footed and lick crumbs off heaven’s tables,” she wrote.
Eudora Welty’s contribution is a pamphlet written for the Mississippi Advertising Commission. “Mississippi Food” is thought to be her only piece of food writing. The recipes and accompanying notes document how to make such things as whole jellied apples, eggs stuffed with spinach, and lye hominy. The ingredients for lye hominy are merely dried corn, oak ashes and salt, but it’s the cooking that is an all day effort, something I witnessed as a child.
From the Far West is “Depression Cake,” an essay about how a young woman’s desperate and resourceful experimentation led to a successful eggless, butterless cake for a July 4 gathering. Except for the bacon drippings, we’d call that cake vegan today.
Filled with descriptive writing and long lost traditions, The Food of a Younger Land is a fine way to rediscover our culinary roots.
The Food of a Younger Land
I’m not sure if Mr. Steve has blogged about these Doll family books before, but I’m going to ladder up on his comments if he has, and if he hasn’t, okey dokey!
There are three books about the Doll family (their last name is Doll) that have lived and still live, in a 100-year old Victorian doll house in Kate’s room at the Palmer’s house in “Anytown USA”. By this, I mean that their story could happen anywhere and at any time. The Dolls (father, mother, aunt, uncle, nanny, sister, brother, and baby) all are porcelain with cloth bodies. They are dressed in 100-year old clothes, which are beginning to show wear, as are the Doll family themselves. Titles in the trilogy by author Ann M Martin include The Doll People, The Meanest Doll in the World, and The Runaway Dolls.
To begin at the beginning, these dolls have all taken the “Oath” which requires them to always be on the watch for humans and to avoid PDS (permanent doll state) at all costs. As you might expect, the dolls all talk, think, and walk around; after hours, of course. Annabelle Doll makes friends with the daughter of the Funcraft family that move in to Kate Palmer’s messy little sister’s room (her name is Nora).
The adventures that follow the Funcrafts’ arrival are exciting, realistic in a fantastical sort of way, funny, and sad all at the same time. Such extraneous characters as Mrs. Robertson, Mean Mimi, The Captain (a lecherous cat that loves to play with dolls), and a couple of human-type children all add in to this mix of wonder for anyone who has dolls/played with dolls or who loves a good fantasy with just the right ingredients mixed together to make a real treat! Especially enjoyable are illustrations by Caldecott Medal winner Brian Selznick.
I couldn’t put the books down once I had started them!
The Runaway Dolls
One of the most enjoyable series of books I have read in a long time evolve around the character of Maisie Dobbs. Set in post-WWI England, Maisie is a private investigator/psychologist. Each of the six books chronicles events involving the Great War and how its aftermath plays out in the lives of either Maisie or one of the people she is called upon to investigate.
The books are well written, and include much detail about life in England in the late 1920’s. There is good character development and enough plot to keep you riveted until the end.
One of the best ways to “read” these books is by listening to the audiobook versions. They are narrated by Orlagh Cassidy, who has the ability to project feeling and life into every one of the books characters. In addition her lovely English accent, her calm voice has the ability to transport you into Maisie’s mind and heart.
Titles in this series include: Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, Messenger of Truth, Among the Mad, and An Incomplete Revenge.
June 26, 2000 representatives of The Human Genome Project announced it had assembled a working draft of the human genome-the genetic blueprint of human beings. Two major tasks were involved in this accomplishment. Large fragments of DNA had to be placed in the proper order to cover all the human chromosomes, and the DNA sequencing of the fragments had to be determined. Although the draft contained some gaps and errors, it represented 95% of all genes. This was a phenomenal accomplishment in the world of genetics.
June 26, 1900 the Yellow Fever Commission was formed by Surgeon-General George M. Sternberg to fight the cause and spread of the deadly disease. Dr. Walter Reed who had previously investigated typhoid and malaria outbreaks was appointed officer-in-charge. While yellow fever is now known to be caused by a virus, it was believed at that time to be spread by direct contact with an infected person or things like the infected person’s clothes.
June 26, 1819 for all the cycling enthusiasts out there, the first U.S. patent for a velocipede, a predecessor of the bicycle, was issued to William K. Clarkson, Jr. of New York. Unfortunately, fire destroyed the patent record at the Patent Office in 1836 so very little else is known. It was not until 1866 that the first U.S. patent was issued for a bicycle. Check out the Bicycle of America Museum site for a great timeline on the bicycle and an alphabetical index.
Bicycle: The History
One of the many joys of working in a library is learning about new reads through the books patrons ask about. Not long ago, my co-worker heard about Wesley the Owl : The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl from a patron, and she passed the recommendation along to me, knowing how much I love nature.
Stacey O’Brien adopted Wesley, an injured barn owl, at the tender age of four days. Wesley’s wing was so damaged he would be unable to fend for himself in the wild, so O’Brien became his “mother” and lifelong friend. The book reads like a memoir of, and tribute to, the owl’s life. The author provides fascinating details about the biology of barn owls, weaving her own life as a student researcher at Caltech, and beyond, into the story. The bond between owl and human is so strong that, at one point, O’Brien recounts how keeping Wesley alive saved her life.
Many thanks to our patrons, who keep asking for new reads and inspiring our staff!
Wesley the owl : the remarkable love story of an owl and his girl
May Erlewine’s great song “Rise Up Singing” celebrates the restorative power of singing. Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook collects words, chords and sources for 1200 songs from many folk traditions as well as the commercial music industry. This venerable print resource is organized by topic from America to Work. My favorite topical section is Play. That’s where you’ll find so many of the songs you’ll remember from childhood. But this songbook isn’t only for kids. There are protest songs as well as sacred rounds and chants from a variety of traditions. Rise Up Singing is easy to use. The songs are indexed by artist, by culture, by holiday, and by subject. The title index includes first lines and alternate titles. And Pete Seeger’s introduction is worth reading even if you go no further. One thing that makes Rise Up Singing different from many other vocal fake books is that, except for the Sacred Rounds and Chants section, there is no musical notation to express the melodies of the songs. That leaves more room for lyrics in this portable book from Sing Out. Because the book is meant for group singing environments, there’s usually someone in the group who knows the tune. If you’re thinking of a popular or folk song, a show tune or kids’ song, it may very well be here.
Rise Up Singing
There is something about the prose of Raymond Chandler that I just absolutely love. His gritty, hardboiled brand of Los Angeles noir is pitch perfect and seamless in its ability to create unsentimental evocations of the shadowy streets of 1940’s Hollywood. Chandler’s stories have an effortless flow to them and are filled with an endless array of period-specific idioms, tough guy-catch phrases and infectious dialogue imbued with timeless black humor. Next to Samuel Beckett and Woody Allen, few writers have given us so many humorous one liners about the darkness of the human condition.
In his best work, readers will explore the lives of con artists, hardnosed cops, troubled damsels, various forms of organized crime, Hollywood starlets, and of course Chandler’s infamous protagonist, the caustic yet cool private investigator Philip Marlowe. Chandler is the most imitated and influential detective novelist of the twentieth century who along with Dashiell Hammett paved the literary road for the likes of Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly and many others who have followed.
Stories and novels, 1933-1942
Retrotalk and retroterms. These words are used by Ralph Keyes to describe the subject of his 2009 book I Love It When You Talk Retro. The main point of this volume is to give histories of words and phrases, the full meaning of which cannot be grasped unless one understands their origins. Keyes gives example after example, such as Ma Bell as the nickname for the phone company. We still say we answer the phone’s ring, we dial a number, and then hang up when we are finished with the call, even though with modern phones we have actually done none of these things. There’s a section on phrases that have appeared because of their connection to the office environment, such as rubber stamp, red tape, and pink slip. Animals are also a source for language such as a lame duck, a sitting duck, and a dead duck, as well as the goose that laid the golden egg, pecking order, and putting on the dog. For a time of amusement and enlightenment, this one’s a winner.
I Love It When You Talk Retro
June 16, 1884 Coney Island began operating the first commercially successful gravity-powered American roller coaster. Starting at a height of 50 feet on one end, passengers rode a train downhill on undulating tracks over a wooden structure 600 feet long until its momentum died. The ride cost 5 cents. Roller coasters and amusement parks have come a long wild way since that first roller coaster ride.
June 17, 1870 George Cormack, the co-inventor of the breakfast cereal Wheaties, was born. Cormack, a health clinician accidentally invented the cereal in 1921 when he spilled a little of the bran gruel he was making for his patients onto a hot stove and it sizzled into a crispy flake. Being a cereal lover myself, I was fascinated by how Cormack created his cereal. He tested 36 varieties of wheat before he perfected his flakes. Incidentally while we are on the subject of breakfast cereal, Lester Borchardt, of General Mills invented Cheerios June 19, 1941 to provide a more convenient alternative to oatmeal. Originally called Cheeri Oats, this cereal almost didn’t get created. Borchardt and his team were working on a machine to puff cereal but his boss wanted him to stop work on the machine. Borchardt insisted on continuing and voilà, 2 months later Cheerios were created. He also invented Kix. Borchardt lived until he was 99 and ate Cheerios everyday-hmmm. As the mother of 3, his finger food cereals were a life saver for me when my children went through the toddler stage!
June 17, 1837 Charles Goodyear obtained his first rubber-processing patent (U.S. No. 240). At the time, india-rubber would melt in the summer heat but Goodyear devised a treatment with metallic solutions that resolved this problem. His discovery, which came to be known vulcanization strengthened rubber, vastly improved rubber’s application in a variety of industrial uses, one of which was automobile tires. Although his process revolutionized the rubber industry, he was unable to profit from his discovery and died a poor man.
Roller Coasters: United States and Canada
Summer has arrived, and for some families that means car trips with the kids. The dreaded question “Are we there yet?” has been asked by generations of young (and not so young) travelers.
These audiobooks can help make the miles seem shorter, and they’re stories the whole family can enjoy. These selections are suitable for all ages of children, though will probably be best enjoyed by school age kids in grades 3 and up.
John Grogan has written a children’s version of his popular story about his dog, Marley. “Marley: a Dog Like No Other” is the tale of yellow Lab Marley from puppyhood to adulthood, a dog with a wonderful personality and boundless energy who tries so hard to be good. Animal lovers will enjoy this one.
If you and your children like historical novels, a good choice is “Elijah of Buxton” by Christopher Paul Curtis. This Newbery Award winner tells the story of Elijah, born free in Canada’s Buxton Settlement, where his parents landed after escaping from slavery. Elijah journeys across the Detroit River into America on the trail of a thief who has stolen a friend’s money, and witnesses firsthand the treatment his parents fled.
Mystery, adventure, art, and puzzles within puzzles await listeners of “Chasing Vermeer” by Blue Balliett. Set in Chicago’s Hyde Park, sixth grade outsiders Petra and Calder become friends as they try to figure out who stole a missing Vermeer painting. That’s the plot in a nutshell, but this story is more than just the sum of its parts - it also encourages thinking about coincidence and possibilities, in a fun way with a good story.
Check out your library for other great listening, for all ages! We’re happy to make suggestions.
Marley: a Dog Like No Other