Book Review: The Soul of a Chef

March 10, 2013 Books to Read, Cooking / Food, Nonfiction 0

Soul of a ChefThe Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection
by Michael Ruhlman, Nonfiction – Cooking/Food 
(Released August, 2001)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Ruhlman explores what makes a chef successful by profiling three different examples: the Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), rising star chef Michael Symon, and reknowned chef Thomas Keller.
My Thoughts: This book is almost like three separate short stories, which makes it an easy read and keeps things interesting. Part 1 focuses on the CMC Exam, which is a professional certification given by the CIA (this is NOT the exam that CIA students take to graduate from the school). Ruhlman does a fantastic job writing about the exam in a way that has you biting your knuckles with suspense as if you were watching a sports event. His descriptions of the franttic lead-up to service for each section of the test and the judging panels provide serious drama. However, I did find the detail about classical cooking methods tedious to read at times. Part 2 focuses on Cleveland chef Michael Symon, who was a rising star on the culinary scene at the time and is now an Iron Chef on Iron Chef America. It’s a light-hearted section compared to Part 1 and showcases Symon’s bubbly personality, a critical factor in the success of his restaurant. I loved learning more about Symon’s background, cooking style, personality, and business philosophy after seeing him on numerous cooking shows. He’s kind of a badass and does food his own way while winning respect in the culinary industry. Part 3 focuses on Thomas Keller and “The French Laundry”, widely considered the best chef and restaurant in the country. Ruhlman focuses on how Keller got to where he is despite no formal training and growing up in a family that was never focused on food. Ruhlman might be my favorite food writer – and this one is joining his first book, The Making of a Chef, on my Cooking / Food Books List.

Have you read The Soul of a Chef?  Tell us what you thought (without spoilers!) in the comments section.

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

March 10, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Whered You Go BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel
by Maria Semple, Fiction 
(Released December, 2012)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Bernadette Fox disappears following a series of embarrassing incidents at home and issues with anxiety, sending her eighth grade daughter (Bee) on a quest to find her.
My Thoughts: Finally…the first book I’ve read in 2013 that I’ve absolutely LOVED! This book is surprising, quirky, heartwarming, and suspenseful. At first, I thought it was going to be a flighty read about neurotic mothers in the carpool line. But, about a quarter into the book, you learn more about Bernadette…she’s a complex character and I was hooked on her after reading the ArtForum article profiling her former architecture career. Her complexity as a character is sort of shoved into a light and funny surrounding story, which gives the book great balance. I also loved Bee, Bernadette’s daughter. She reminded me of Becca Moody, Hank’s daughter on the TV show “Californication”…a calm voice of reason juxtaposed against a family full of turmoil. Beyond great characters, this book contains a quirky mix of topics that somehow all gel together…”crazy mother” dynamics, Microsoft corporate culture, mental illness, architecture, and Antarctica. It sounds scattered, but each topic has its logical place in the story…it just worked. Finally, I loved the structure of the book – the story is told through a combination of Bee’s thoughts, emails and letters between characters, news articles, and reports by various “officials” (I don’t want to say what types of officials for fear of giving away spoilers). You get lots of different perspectives of what’s going on and the structure illuminates the contrast between Bernadette’s self image and everyone else’s view of her, which gets to the heart of the story. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is going on my Book Club Recommendation List.

Have you read Where’d You Go, Bernadette??  Tell us what you thought (without spoilers!) in the comments section.

Book Review: Eye of the Needle

March 10, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

Eye of the NeedleEye Of The Needle
by Ken Follett, Historical Fiction (Released 1978)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: A German spy (“The Needle”) who discovers a key Allied secret during World War II is being hunted by MI5 and collides with a woman living on a desolate island off the coast of Aberdeen.
My Thoughts: Before The Pillars of the Earth and The Century Trilogy (Fall of GiantsWinter of the World), Follett was best known for his historical fiction thrillers. Since I love his historical epics so much and I love thrillers, I figured I should try one of the types of books that originally made him famous. Eye of the Needle was originally published in 1978 under the title Storm Island and was Follett’s first truly successful novel, so I figured it was a good place to start. After being disappointed by the last WWII thriller I read (Simon Tolkien’s Orders from Berlin), Eye of the Needle was what I’d been looking for! The plot centers around a fictional (but relatively probable) “what-if” scenario involving the lead-up to the Normandy invasion, which gave the book its historical depth. It’s also a fantastic page turner – with spies, MI5, murder, police work, and a side love story as well. My one small criticism is that I thought the Epilogue was contrived and unnecessary to the story – but you can just stop reading when the regular book ends, so it doesn’t end up doing much harm. This one is going on my Books for Guys and Page Turners lists.

Have you read Eye of the NeedleTell us what you thought (without spoilers!) in the comments section.

Book Review: Seating Arrangements

March 10, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 1

Seating ArrangementsSeating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Released June, 2012
433 Pages

Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary

Family and friends gather on a small island in New England for the wedding of Daphne Van Meter, who is seven months pregnant, and Greyson Duff.

My Thoughts 

The Van Meters (Winn and Biddy are the parents – I mean, get a load of those names!) and Duffs are snobby, New England families that don’t talk about anything unpleasant and fear “inappropriateness” and “social embarrassment” above all else. Obviously, a wedding where the bride is knocked up has the potential for many moments that would send these people into a tailspin.

Many of the reviewers on Amazon passionately hated the characters and everything they are about. However, it’s obvious from the first page that this is a social satire and Shipstead wrote the book with a tongue in cheek attitude. These characters aren’t meant to be loved…they are meant to provide comedy and represent certain cliches.

Shipstead also perfectly captures the ridiculousness that can overcome packs of women as they prepare for a wedding. Seating Arrangements is a fun, light read with just the right amount of substance.

Book Review: Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See

March 10, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 0

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to SeeToo Bright to Hear Too Loud to See
by Juliann Garey, Fiction (Released December, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Greyson Todd, a high powered Hollywood Executive leaves his family and the burden of hiding his mental illness for a nomadic life of travel and mental hospitals.
My Thoughts: Greyson (as narrator) tells his story by alternating segments about his childhood, his “Hollywood Executive” life as the disease surfaces, his world travels as the disease overcomes him, and his time undergoing Electroconvulsive Therapy (aka ECT, electroshock). This choppy structure made it really hard for me to get a good sense of Greyson’s illness and how it affected everyone around him. However, it enabled me to like certain sections of the book, while hating others. I enjoyed the childhood and early disease sections, but downright hated the travel and ECT sections. I appreciate that Garey was trying to write from the perspective of someone with bipolar disorder, but it was hard to read and made no sense to me. I almost put the book down halfway through because I couldn’t take the writing of the travel and ECT sections anymore. So…I obviously can’t recommend a book that I considered putting down, even though I liked some parts of it. This one was yet another Amazon “Best Book of the Month” (December 2012) that hasn’t measured up…I’m starting to doubt the quality of that list…or maybe I just have different taste!

Have you read Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See?  Tell us what you thought (without spoilers!) in the comments section.

Book Review: Courage Beyond the Game

March 10, 2013 Books to Skip, Nonfiction, Sports 0

Courage Beyond the GameCourage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story
by Jim Dent, Nonfiction – Sports (Released August, 2011)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: The story of Freddie Steinmark, standout safety at the University of Texas in the late 1960′s, and his battle with bone cancer…written by the author of The Junction Boys.
My Thoughts: Courage Beyond the Game is essentially a story about an undersized kid who was nevertheless a standout on the football and baseball fields, as well as in the classroom…and who was known for his sunny attitude and perseverance in the face of pain. It’s a moving and inspirational story…and very well written. But, I think it was a stretch to make this into a full length book. The first half is a play by play of Steinmark’s high school and college athletic career…and I’m talking game by game by game until they all started to run together. It was a bit much for me and I got bored. The story of Freddie’s battle with bone cancer was much more compelling reading, but unfortunately didn’t begin until the second half of the book. Freddie’s story is certainly worth reading about, but you can probably find what you need by Googling him.

Have you read Courage Beyond the Game?  Tell us what you thought (without spoilers!) in the comments section.

Book Review: Orders from Berlin

March 10, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

Orders From BerlinOrders from Berlin (Inspector Trave)
by Simon Tolkien, Historical Fiction (Released December, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: During the German bombing of London in 1940, Ava tries to help the authorities solve the mystery of her father’s (Albert Morrison, the ex Chief of MI6) murder, which could carry larger implications for the country.
My Thoughts: Yes, Simon Tolkien is related to J.R.R. Tolkien of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fame – he’s his grandson. However, his writing style is totally different from his grandfather’s. Orders from Berlin is a combination historical fiction and mystery/thriller…but, I didn’t think it was all that thrilling. I had high expectations because I love historical fiction – and even better if it’s also a mystery. The book was easy to read, but almost too easy from a plot perspective. The ending was pretty obvious early on – the only cliffhanger was when the characters in the book were going to figure it out. I didn’t have trouble finishing the book, but I don’t have anything more interesting to say about it. Sadly, I didn’t find a new author to love with this one.

Have you read Orders from Berlin?  Tell us what you thought (without spoilers!) in the comments section.

Book Review: Killing Lincoln

March 10, 2013 Books to Read, History, Nonfiction 0

Killing LincolnKilling Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever
by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Nonfiction – History (Released September, 2011)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: The story of the events leading up to and following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.
My Thoughts: As I said in my review of Killing Kennedy (O’Reilly and Dugard’s other Presidential assassination book), I was looking forward to reading Killing Lincoln since I did not know much about Lincoln’s assassination. Just like Killing KennedyKilling Lincoln is a fantastic and compelling overview for someone who does not already know a lot about this historical event (i.e. this book is for regular people – not history scholars!). There are so many interesting things about Lincoln’s assassination that I was unaware of – such as the fact that it was the result of a much wider conspiracy. I’m actually somewhat embarrassed to talk about how much I learned from this book since it makes it painfully obvious how little I retained from U.S. History classes in high school and college! Basically, all I remembered going into it was that Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre…I didn’t know why, who else (if anyone) was involved, or what happened to Booth after the murder. All those questions are answered here – and in a way that reads like fiction. My only complaint is that the first quarter of the book was mostly devoted to a play by play of the end of the Civil War and Lee’s surrender to Grant – which I found boring. I think I could have skimmed through that part and not missed much of the story – or the authors could have saved us readers some pain by significantly shortening (or omitting) that section!

Have you read Killing Lincoln?  Tell us what you thought (without spoilers!) in the comments section.

Book Review: Phantom

March 10, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

by Jo Nesbo, Fiction (Released October, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Detective Harry Hole returns to Oslo from Hong Kong to try to prove that his former girlfriend’s son, Oleg, is innocent of murdering his drug dealer friend, Gusto.
My Thoughts: If you read my review of Nesbo’s The Leopard, you may remember that Nesbo was billed by some as being similar to Stieg Larsson. Phantom is the third book of the Harry Hole series that I’ve read and, including Phantom, I’ve been disappointed twice. The beginning of the book is completely confusing and I almost put it down after 50 pages. Nesbo starts each thread of the story without using any character names and includes the perspective of a rat at the murder scene, which totally lost me. Gusto’s “dying thoughts” is one of these threads, which actually does add to the story later in the book, but these segments are a mess in the beginning. I thought things got better through the middle, but slid downhill again as Nesbo explained and then discarded most of the potential solutions to the mystery. There were so many twists, I found myself forgetting whether a certain character had been eliminated from suspicion for Gusto’s murder.  And, the nail in Phantom‘s coffin is that I absolutely despised the ending. Though I love Harry Hole as a character, I think I’m done with Nesbo’s books for awhile.

Have you read Phantom?  Tell us what you thought (without spoilers!) in the comments section.

Book Review: Fiction Ruined My Family

March 10, 2013 Books to Read, Memoirs 0

Fiction Ruined My FamilyFiction Ruined My Family
by Jeanne Darst
Nonfiction – Memoir
Released September, 2011
Bottom Line: Read it.
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary

The youngest daughter of an alcoholic mother and a struggling writer father tells the true story of her childhood and of trying to avoid repeating her parents’ mistakes while trying to succeed as a writer herself.

My Thoughts

Many reviews compared this book to Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, and I do think the two books are similar (although this one is definitely funnier). Certainly, if you liked The Glass Castle, you will probably like Fiction Ruined My Family.

It’s somewhat of a tragi-comedy – Darst is able to inject humor into a childhood that was pretty heartbreaking. She is honest and doesn’t sugarcoat any unpleasant experiences, both her own and her family’s. So much so that I wonder if any family members are still speaking to her after reading this book! She doesn’t spare any of them their most embarrassing moments being described in minute detail for the world to read! And, there are some doozies in there – i.e. if gross-out humor bothers you, probably best to avoid this book.

Darst basically lives her adult life with the sole purpose of creating situations that may result in great writing material. This involves rarely holding a steady job, living in squalor, and acting like she is 22 well into her mid-thirties. But, her strategy worked and she got a very entertaining memoir out of it all!

Though this is kind of a fun book, it is well-written and more than just a memoir of drunken escapades…it’s also going on my Book Club Recommendations List.