Islands, the Universe, Home

Islands, the Universe, Home coverIslands, the Universe, Home: Essays
Gretel Ehrlich
Open Road Media, 210 pages
originally published in 1991
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $11.64
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

On the evening that I was ready to start a new book my daily email from Early Bird Books included this title. The summary said that the writing was excellent, so that, of course, caught my attention. Given the price I decided to buy it.

In the time frame that this book covers the author lives on a ranch in Wyoming, and much of the commentary in the essays takes place in that milieu. However, Ehrlich treks distant trails in Japan, explores the Channel Islands of the California coast, looks for cacti on military land in Nevada, and visits the NASA telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Ehrlich does know how to turn a phrase:

quoteSap rises in trees and in me, and the hard knot of perseverance I cultivated to meet winter dissipates; I walk away from the obsidian of bitter nights. Now snow comes wet and heavy, but the air it traverses feels light.

The essays in the first part of the book reminded me somewhat of Loren Eiseley, though not so much later in the book. Nonetheless, Ehrlich’s reflections are engaging throughout.




The Bookshop of Yesterdays

Bookshop of Yesterdays coverThe Bookshop of Yesterdays
Amy Meyerson
Park Row (June 12, 2018), 368 pages
Kindle edition $9.49, Amazon paperback $10.29

The Amazon page for this novel notes that it was included in the summer reading list of a couple of different publications, and that’s really what it is: something of a summer reading title, even though I read the book in late winter.

Miranda, the protagonist whose story is told in the first person, returns home to Los Angeles from her teaching job and boyfriend in Philadelphia when her uncle Billy dies and leaves her the bookstore he owned. Billy loved games and scavenger hunts even when Miranda was a child, and he had set up a scavenger hunt for her before his death to explain to her why he left her the bookshop, and to reveal to her something that she didn’t know about her own personal history. The clues he leaves are quotes from a wide range of literature.

There is a plot twist, which makes perfect sense once you get there, but the book rather falls apart after that revelation. It does recover enough, however, for a fairly satisfying ending.

Nothing heavy or profound here, but an enjoyable diversion.

parsley, sage, thyme, and, of course, rosemary

I have always been serious about spices in my cooking, but when we did our kitchen remodel in Gilroy we added a built-in spice rack and I went ape-you know what. We bought empty spice bottles at Bed Bath and Beyond and filled them with spices from the good folks at Penzeys. At our house here in Hemet we have a spice drawer rather than a custom-built spice rack, but we still have just as many spices. We even have an overflow plastic spice organizer in the pantry.

Penzeys rosemaryThe thyme is in our main spice drawer. The parsley and sage are in the overflow organizer. And rosemary? I haven’t given rosemary proper respect. In fact, when I went to do a recipe that called for rosemary a couple of weeks ago I realized that I didn’t have any. I bought some fresh rosemary from the produce department in the grocery store. A couple weeks later I had another recipe that included rosemary and I used what was left.

I realized I needed to to give rosemary a better spot in my spice pantheon. So I added it to my last Penzeys order, and it now has a spot in the main spice drawer, booting out a rarely used spice. Why it took so long, I don’t know, but the disrespect has been addressed.

P.S. Remember when we listened to music on vinyl in stereo? Remember that you could separately control the left and right speaker volume? You could listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of the English folk tune independently on one side and their anti-war chant separately on the other. That’s something that we can’t do any longer.

Music: A Subversive History

Music: a Subversive History coverMusic: A Subversive History
Ted Gioia
Narrated by Jamie Renell
Basic Books, October 15, 2019
$20.76 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

This is a substantial work. The print version is 480 pages, and the audiobook is 17 hours and 55 minutes. But Gioia covers a lot of territory here. He starts with primitive humans in their hunter-gatherer societies and continues up to the present day with YouTube and streaming music.

Gioia explains how music had its origins in hunting and war, and how both musical instruments and musical conventions reflect that. He describes the way in which music was often initially subversive, a product of the poor, slaves, the underclass, and how it was ultimately appropriated by the ruling class for its own purposes. He talks about how women’s voices were suppressed and their creations co-opted. For example The Song of Songs in the Old Testament, clearly an erotic love song, became a poem describing God’s love for His people, or if you are Christian, perhaps Christ’s love for his church. He documents other similar occurrences in the ancient world.

He explains how the composers of the classical music era had their own agendas and how they benefited from their patrons but often when their own way. He is highly critical about the way in which the early documenters of folk music failed to accurately transcribe what they found. Gioia describes how publishers of sheet music catered to the kind of music folks with pianos in their homes wanted to play.

In the modern era Gioia moves from blues to jazz to rock to country in a single chapter and describes their impact on American society. He notes how MTV revolutionized the music industry and how Apple and Google (which purchased YouTube) revolutionized it once again. Throughout, over and over again, he documents how music that is initially intended to be revolutionary ends up becoming mainstream.

The book is ably ready by Jamie Renell, although his occasional mispronunciations of names, particularly in the ancient world, can be jarring. Still Renell reads with cadence and clarity that effectively communicates Gioia’s text.

healthy, tasty bread without whole wheat flour

I had a revelation the other day. I can bake healthy bread that I enjoy without using whole wheat flour, which I don’t like all that much.

King Arthur blendsAs part of my bread baking routine I have always had a bag of whole wheat flour on hand. Not because I like it, but because it’s healthier than white flour and I felt that I “should” bake a whole wheat loaf periodically. The fact is, however, that I can and do make tasty, healthy bread without whole wheat flour. It’s all about using a some form of multi-grain blend.

King Arthur Flour has had a variety of multi-grain flours over the years, depending on what ingredients were available to them. Most recently I bought their Super 10 Blend, which I really liked. It makes for a marvelous sandwich bread when mixed with King Arthur unbleached bread flour. I was down to the end of my package of Super 10, so I added some whole wheat flour to a recent loaf. It was still good, but not as good as the Super 10 on its own.sprouted wheat bread

When I reordered the Super 10 I also ordered a bag of Sprouted Wheat Flour and Whole Grain Flour Blend. I made a loaf with the Sprouted Wheat Flour (not exactly multi-grain, but a similar concept) this week and it has been excellent. I’m looking forward to trying the Whole Grain Flour Blend.

I will use up the whole wheat flour that I have on hand, but (by golly, I coulda had a V8!) from now on I will use the tastier multigrain blends for my healthy bread loaves.

Make It Scream, Make It Burn

Make It Scream coverMake It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays
Leslie Jamison
Little, Brown and Company (September 24, 2019)
273 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $13.99

I ordinarily would not consider reading a book with a title like this, but I read at least two highly approving reviews of the book, and an Amazon review said the title had very little to do with the content of the book. The reviews I read said that the writing in this book of essays was excellent, and I’m always looking for great writing. So I bought it.

In the first half of the book the author writes about a variety of topics. She tells us about a whale whose song is at a very different frequency than that of any other whale, and who captured the imagination of thousands of people. She writes about social conditions in war-torn Sri Lanka. She describes how the Second Life virtual reality environment can give meaning to the lives of those whose circumstances in the physical world are less than optimal. She goes into detail about how James Agee’s article for Fortune magazine about sharecroppers in Alabama, which was never published, is so very different from the book he did publish, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

And can this woman write? Yes, she can. Here is an example of her marvelous prose, in which she describes Las Vegas:

quoteAll of Vegas tries too hard. But is it inauthentic? I’ve never thought so. If inauthenticity depends on pretending you are something you’re not, then Vegas has always been adamantly honest. It is all fake, all the time.

The second half of the book is different. She writes about her own life. As an individual in recovery, about failed relationships, about becoming a stepmother and trying her best not to be an evil one, and about her own high-risk pregnancy.

The writing is vivid and direct. Jamison is an accomplished essayist.

Trust Exercise

Trust Exercise coverTrust Exercise: A Novel
by Susan Choi
Henry Holt and Co. (April 9, 2019)
262 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.81

I had seen positive reviews of this book, and it was in my collection of Kindle samples. It was about the time I was ready to start a new book when I read that it had won the 2019 National Book Award for fiction. I decided that it was time to read it.

The plot line involves a high school for the performing arts and the school’s students and faculty, along with a group of visiting British theater students and their teacher. Those visitors are critical to the plot. The relationships among the characters get complicated, which moves much of the plot forward.

The structure of the novel is interesting. The first half of the book reads like a straightforward novel told in the third person. The second half of the book takes place thirteen years later and is told from the perspective of one of the characters who, in the first half, plays a secondary role. Interestingly, Choi alternates between the first and third person in this section. There are also flashbacks that explain why the character has put a rather heinous plan into action.

The novel ends with a sort of epilogue that takes the story a number of years into the future. Loose ends do not get tied up, but I nevertheless did not feel cheated. The characters and the writing left me with the feeling that the novel had accomplished what it set out to do.