Archive for Non-fiction

Blood, Bones & Butter

Blood, Bones & Butter is a memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton and it’s quite a read. Shocking in parts to say the least. (I’ll admit I ended up being not very fond of her.) It’s a real eye opener into the life of a well known, very popular chef who owns Prune restaurant in New York City. Gabrielle takes us through her life, from child to wife/mother with 2 children, with a hectic, stressful schedule all the while dealing with a “marriage of sorts” (he needed a green card) while openingly admitting she’s gay.  Got that? She learned the basics from her French mother who was a wonderful cook, and lateron at the farm table beside her Italian mother-in-law. How she kept up the pace of her life is a mystery to me. Her descriptions of the family’s annual vacation in Italy are beautiful. Buying and cooking the local food in the tiny kitchen with her mother-in-law holds special meaning to her, especially since she was never able to have a decent conversation with her because of language difficulties. They communicated through food. All the while the stress of a loveless, forced marriage hovers in the background. As well, over the years she developed an estranged relationship with her own mother. This book is a real eye opener into the world of a chef. But Gabrielle Hamilton isn’t just any chef. Still, anyone thinking of “getting into the business” should read this honest, brutal account of life in the kitchen. You’ll shake your head in wonder.

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Hallelujah!

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”                             Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Today is Leonard Cohen’s 80th birthday. Tuesday he releases yet another album… a-ma-zing! A new book, LEONARD COHEN everybody knows is a retrospective of his life & career, and is a real glimpse into the poet, writer, and master of song, over the course of his life. It’s a beautiful book about a beautiful soul. On May 26, 2009, we saw him perform at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (a real concert hall – not a hockey arena!). We had box seats – first box, first row, and it was without a doubt THE BEST show I’ve seen in my entire life.

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Wave

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala is a very powerful book. It is riveting in the depth of it’s despair. Almost unbelievable. It is so shocking that at times I had to remind myself that it was a memoir and not fiction. If you haven’t heard about this book yet, you definitely will in short order. It is the absolutely devastating story of how Sonali lost her husband  Steve,7 year old son Vikram, 5 year old son Malli, her parents Aachchi & Seeya, and best friend Orlantha in the Boxing Day Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 while vacationing over Christmas in Sri Lanka. (Most of the reviews I read failed to mention the names of the family members she lost in this terrible tragedy –  they’re just reduced to husband, sons, mother & father. I found this appalling!) It was the last day of their vacation, Orlantha knocked on their hotel door to see if they were ready to leave (in just a minute, Steve is in the bathroom)… and then all Hell broke loose. They saw the enormous wave, panic ensued, they try to escape in a jeep up into the hills (no time to even knock on her parents’ door) the water kept rising, then surged over everything, the jeep turned over, and they got separated. Sonali managed to cling to a tree branch while everyone else disappeared never to be seen again. Eventually rescuers spot her spinning like a top, covered in mud, minus her trousers. It’s unbelievable to imagine how anyone could survive this, never mind the years of agony to follow. When reality sets in and she is ready to admit that everyone is gone, years of absolute misery coping with this unbelievable tragedy follow. Interspersed with the details of her story are little snippets of memory, happy times, that give us a look into the lives and personalities of Steve, Vik, Malli, Mum, Dad, and Orlantha before that dreadful catastrophy took their lives away. Life really isn’t survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the most resilient. I can’t imagine anyone more resilient than Sonali.

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Salt Sugar Fat

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss is a real whopper of a book. Sorry for the pun, it’s intended. This is a book that delves into the giants of the processed food industry and how they manipulate our tastebuds. It’s a real eye opener that illustrates how far from real food we’ve wandered during our quest for quick, cheap, easy to cook food. We waddle (cause we’re fat) like lemmings over the cliff of sensibility and reason into the processed food isles of the grocery stores to satisfy our addictions (to salt, sugar & fat) that we didn’t even know we had. These are the 3 ingredients used by the processed food industry that determine whether or not their products fly off the shelves & into our mouths or die a fast death due to low sales. Money is everything to the industry, and you won’t believe the billions made on sales of packaged products that are SO BAD for our health. There are way too many facts & figures in this book to even zero in on a specific product or company here, but I’m sure you can name a few yourself. The depth Moss goes to, to uncover the manipulation of our mouths, is mind-boggling. The more I read, the more I kept thinking that food journalist Michael Pollan has it right. In his wonderful book, In Defence of Food, he said one thing that has stayed with me for years… “If it comes from a plant, eat it. If it’s made in a plant, don’t.” Michael Moss just goes further into explaning why this rule is so important to our health today when nobody actually cooks a meal from scratch, and cheap junk food is everywhere to tempt our tastebuds. It’s “eater beware” now. Read this book and you may never look at the stuff on the grocery store shelves the same way again… at least I hope you won’t.

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The Soup Sisters Cookbook

I love soup. In fact, every Sunday in winter I make homemade soup. I have 8 favourites that I alternate, and I recently thought I should try to add a few new ones to my collection of recipes. So, I went looking for a good soup cookbook, and discovered The Soup Sisters Cookbook. Edited by Sharon Hapton, it is a collection of recipes from celebrated chefs and “Soup Sisters”. Soup Sisters is a non profit, charitable, social enterprise where women get together to make, share and donate soup to designated women’s shelters across Canada. What could be more grass roots than feeding those who are in need. It’s been such a huge success and there has been alot of buzz about this book of late. And it seems that the men wanted in on the fun (imagine the commaraderie and laughter involved when a group of women get together to cook!) so Broth Brothers was launched as an extension of the Soup Sisters soup-making family. They support homeless youth who are transitioning from street life to mainstream society. Along with all the terrific recipes… like Tuscan Bean, Thai-spiced Lime and Sweet Potato, Dutch Meatball, Roasted Heirloom Tomato, and Summer Minestrone with Basil Swirl… you get the added bonus of knowing you’re helping because all the royalties from the sale of this book go towards helping the women & children directly. If you can’t get out there and cook, you can help by buying the book. I think it would make a terrific Christmas gift for the foodie on your list along with some colourful soup bowls. Bon appetit!

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Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

WOW! WOW! WOW! Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anna Quindlen. In addition to writing for The New York Times and Newsweek, she has written 6 novels and her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life has sold more than a million copies. Lucky me, while I was wandering through my favourite local bookstore my eyes spotted this beautiful red cover with her name on it. When I got closer and saw “a memoire” at the bottom I didn’t even bother to check out the inside, I just bought it. She’s that good! And it was way better than I expected. I challenge you to get through this book without becoming emotional. What she says, and especially how she says it, will give you goose-bumps. She writes about looking back and ahead in life, celebrating marriage, girlfriends, our mothers, faith, loss, and as the jacket says” all of the stuff in our closets and more”. She uses the past, present and future to explore what matters most to women at different stages of their lives. Essentially the book is about her life, but also, it is a tribute to all women – past, present and future. Buy 2 copies and give 1 away – to your daughter or daughter-in-law or even a friend. Every woman should read this book! 

I love it when I find a treasure like this all on my own, without any media input or recommendation from anyone. I even beat The Globe & Mail. They interviewed Anna a few days after I finished reading it.

 

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Trauma Farm

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Trauma Farm by Brian Brett. I picked it up to take away and I wasn’t sure it would be suitable and keep my attention while I was visiting friends. But I was engrossed in it from the get-go til the last page. This is the story of Brett’s farm on Vancouver Island, his 18 years of hard work and experience written into a single day from morning to night.  He’s a wonderful writer and there’s more humour, insight, and meaningful though in this book than I’ve read in a long time. Who knew eggs and pea hens could be so fascinating! The description of his 24 year old pet parrot Tuco yelling “It’s partytime!” when he spots a car coming up the road sent me into fits of giggles. So did “I’d be the first to admit that humping through the forest on a recently installed artificial knee, using a bad flashlight to search for a blind, black, deaf dog is not intelligent behaviour.” I read whole paragraphs out loud to anyone who would listen, and ended up with oodles of post-it notes stuck to pages for reference and reminders. Every farm is centered around life and death and his is no exception. Lambs are born and horses die and it’s all written with exceptional beauty. And his attitude towards weeding certainly made me happy. He said weeding is an activity, not a result, so a good gardener learns not to fret about finishing a job. He talks about the “community” of small farms, how hard it is for small farms to make a profit, the problems with government regulations, and the threat of disease and issues relating to the massive factory farms that now supply us with most of our food. It’s a wonderful book, even if you’re not prone to reading about animals or nature or food (he even ponders the origin of soup). And he ends the book with the most meaningful sentence… “I’m embarrassed by how much we’ve taken, and when I witness the sense of entitlement of people around me I can only feel ashamed of the angry members of my First World Culture.” It won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize, the B.C. Booksellers’ Choice Award, and it was the bronze medal winner of the IPPY Awards in the Environment category. All well deserved for this fantastic book. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s one I would definitely reread, and I hardly ever reread anything.

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Eating Dirt

This book isn’t for everyone. But I’m a tree hugger, so it stands to reason that I’d be intrigued by it. (In my neighbourhood trees are such a hot button, I’d keep the trees and get rid of some of the neighbours if I could.) Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill is a memoire of Gill’s 20 years as a tree planter starting in northern Ontario when she was a student, then eventually going on to Vancouver Island. It’s back breaking, tedious, dirty, dangerous work, so why would anyone want to do it? She explains… “There are so many living creatures to touch and smell and look at in the field that it’s often a little intoxicating. A setting so full of all-enveloping sensations that it just sweeps you up and spirits you away”. How about that! She also gives a natural history lesson of area which I found fascinating. But I would, wouldn’t I. The biggest Douglas Fir in the world is 242′ tall. It’s on Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew. It’s a dwarf compared to the 400′ tall specimens that lived to be 1,000 years old in the first half of the 20th century. But they’re all gone. Six billion trees have been planted in British Columbia. At the height of the tree planting trade there were an estimated 18,500 tree planters in the country. The average career of a tree planter is 5 years. 5 back-breaking years. Gill did it for 20. Back in her student days in Toronto, her housemate Aimee, a tree planter herself, was her inspiration. She said… “I’d never seen her cry, never seen her anxious or upset, never heard her complain and I never heard her utter a jealous word. I could stand to have my back broken if this was the way a spine could grow back.” At the end of planting one day in B.C. Gill and her group of fellow tree planters came upon a travelling kitchenware salesman who had car troubles. They managed to help him put chains on his tires to try and get his wheels out of the snow. When they told him him they’re tree planters he said… “Thank you for healing the planet”. Will it work, all this planting to replace humongous forests that have been stripped bare of all the trees that have been growing for eons? 6,000,000,000 trees planted! No one knows. Only time will tell. Thank God some people think so and are willing to do the actual work.

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Extra Virginity (The sublime and scandalous world of olive oil)

Boy oh boy, if there was ever a book that shouted “buyer beware” this is it. The world of olive oil is exposed and laid bare in Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity. This is a fascinating read, a bit research-paper-like in places with too much info, but definitely worth the read, even if you skim over parts. Surprise, surprise… it seems all is not as you’re lead to believe in the olive oil industry. If you’re a food purest you’ll hyperventilate when you learn that most of the olive oil produced in Italy is made with oil imported from other countries.  Just because the label sounds Italian doesn’t mean anything. They don’t even import the olives!  Just the oil, in huge oil tankers. And since most consumers probably wouldn’t know a true authentic tasting olive oil if they tasted it, and probably wouldn’t like it if they did, companies actually alter the flavour to make it pallatible to the average consumer. Go figure! Unless you actually go to the farm where they make their own oil and buy it there, you have no idea what you’re buying, and where it’s from. So it’s buyer beware, buy what you like, and worry about more important things. But it certainly makes you wonder about the entire food industry and what else is not quite Kosher. I found this book fascinating!

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A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

This is such a fun book. It’s huge, and hefty, and is definitely a coffee table book, as opposed to a novel. (If you’re lucky and have a beautiful, large powder room it might even be fun to have it there for guests to poke through.) As soon as I heard about it I put my name on the list at the library, and I had to wait for it, so obviously I’m not the only person out there eagre to learn what to do with all their “stuff”.  A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life by Mary Randolph Carter is full of beautiful photos, side captions, and bits & pieces of info on how to organize your life and home around clutter, collections, work, kids, pets, and messy husbands. You can pick it up and open it at random and be transported into the lives of others out there who seem to have way of displaying their stuff so it all looks terrific. Though it looks easy since their stuff seems to be all collectibles. Mine seems to be all junk. But there is a photo in the book showing someone’s office and it’s way worse than my hubby’s, which I thought was next to impossible. I chuckled when I read how the author’s mum wrote her important phone numbers on the wall next to her bedside table after she couldn’t keep track of her address book. Now that’s creative, and besides – who cares (the grandkids did think it a bit odd since they’d been taught not to write on the walls) and who sees her bedroom anyway. Leaf through this book at random and I’m sure you’ll find some good advice to help you over the hurdle of that mess I call life. But as the author says on the back cover “Don’t scub the soul out of your home.” Read this… it’s lots of fun!

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