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Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table
Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table
by Sara Roahen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.89
87 used & new from $3.18

3 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Marred by a poor writing style, March 6, 2010
I was very much looking forward to Gumbo Tales as I have been experimenting recently with Cajun cuisine (Donald Link's Real Cajun has great recipes). Where Ms. Roahen allows the writing to be informed by the details of the food is where the book shines. However, too often, Ms. Roahen is more interested in writing about her interpretation of New Orleans, of what makes New Orleans special, her own attempts to fit into New Orleans culture, and her own back ground as a Midwesterner. To be honest, I don't care about Ms. Roahen's life; I am reading the book because I want to understand the cuisine.

Additionally, the prose is hampered by over-ornate metaphors and similes that are not adequate to what is being described. One instance is the following passage: "Nostalgia is a sixth sense in New Orleans. It works just like the other five. When functioning optimally, nostalgia deepens your experience of the city." In using the senses to describe nostalgia, Ms. Roahen seems to misunderstand the function of our senses. The senses are not to deepen experience; the senses are the actual facilitators of experience. The flow of the book is tripped up by a redunant structure. Every chapter seems to have a tacked-on bit about post-Katrina Louisiana and how much Ms. Roahen worried about a certain cook or about a certain food establishment. While I sympathize with the plight of many affected by Katrina, I am not sure how it serves the reader to read the same formula in every chapter. Instead, it might have been more powerful to have a long in-depth chapter on the impact of Katrina on Louisiana and its cuisine rather than having little tail-pieces at the end of each chapter.

None of this, though, is to diminish the best parts of the book where the food is the centerpiece. The chapter on Po-Boys, Gumbos, and Red Beans and Rice were particularly illuminating in discussing the variations on these regional specialties. Recipes in such chapters would have been welcome additions. I very much wanted a recipe for the Red Beans and Rice chapter, and found myself dog-earing pages with longer descriptions on different red beans and rice.

If mediocre metaphors and overflowing language do not bother your reading pace, Gumbo Tales will be a welcome overview of New Orleans cuisine. If, like me, you long for well-crafted language but love New Orleans cuisine, it's worth getting through the prose to find useful information about some of the best American food.


Mazeppa
Mazeppa
16 used & new from $18.88

5.0 out of 5 stars Overlooked masterpiece, December 30, 2009
This review is from: Mazeppa (Audio CD)
Like Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky based Mazeppa on Pushkin's writings. However, Mazeppa differs greatly from Eugene Onegin. Whereas Eugene Onegin is about a few individuals who fall in love with Onegin symbolizing the ennui and decaying aristocratic world, Mazeppa has a large historical scope. Although not much is known about the historical figure Mazeppa, it suffices to say that he rose to power under Peter I and ruled the Ukraine only to fall swiftly (and mysteriously), dying after fleeing from the Ukraine. In Puskin's version Mazeppa's fall is bought about after he secretly courts his goddaughter, Maria. Outraged that his beautiful young daughter should marry a 70 year old man, Maria's father, Kochubey betrays Mazeppa to Peter I, only to be betrayed by the Tsar himself who does not believe Kochubey and turns him over to Mazeppa.

For me, this is the real heart of the opera, the second act which brings together so many conflicting emotions at a breakneck speed. The execution of Kochubey is one of the most heartwrenching scenes with multiple themes, plotwise and musically, culminating with the climatic execution. There are four elements in this scene: the crowd that has gathered to watch a wealthy landowner being executed, a drunken Cossack singing ditties at odds with the tense moment, Maria racing to the execution site in hopes of arriving before her father's death to plead mercy from Mazeppa, and the tender prayer sung by Kochubey and Iskra before their execution. The variations of pace-- the quick pace of Maria's race, the slow pace of Kochubey and Iskra's prayer, the bouncy rhythm of the ditties, the mounting excitement of the crowd-- creates a breathtaking collision of emotions. I've listened to this section of Mazeppa over and over again in awe of Tchaikovsky's mastery. The drunken cossack is a wonderful touch, the grotesque interwoven with the tender and the sensationalistic.

There are other parts of the opera that deserve close attention, particularly the ending with Maria, now driven insane by her father's death, holding her dying young admirer in her arms as Mazeppa flees from the tsar's army, but it's the second act to which I always return. I can't compare the Kirov recording to others as I haven't listened to a different one. Yet, it strikes me as one convincingly sung with emotion and drama.


Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping--Updated and Revised for the Internet, the Global Consumer, and Beyond
Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping--Updated and Revised for the Internet, the Global Consumer, and Beyond
by Paco Underhill
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.59
174 used & new from $2.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, albeit mistitled, book, September 6, 2009
I somehow imagine a team of marketers and sales strategist at Simon & Schuster sitting with Underhill's manuscript and trying to make the book seem snappier, a little more soundbiteable. After all "Observations on Shopping Mannerisms by Anthropologist turned Retail Consultant" doesn't have the same tone as "Why We Buy" which rings with a promise to explain our deepest desires for material goods. Alas, the title misleads (not living up to Underhill's explanation of the function of the sign, even if it is only three words short...and in some ways, one must consider every book cover fulfilling the function of store signage).

Rather than "Why", the book is more of a "How". In what ways do consumers function within a retail space? What are the deterrents, the subtle incentives to stay in a retail space, the final closing environment for the sell? How do consumers function based on demographics? What is the architecture of the retail environment? What makes a consumer buy or not buy? These are some of the questions that Underhill seeks to answer with his team of field observers who track (unbeknownst to the shoppers), tape and interview shoppers.

Some reviewers have mentioned how commonsensical some of the observations are. Yet, it's one of the aspects that is always surprising about retail: that the commonsensical is ignored because so many of the decisions are made by corporate executives who do not spend enough time in the retail environment. Yet, on the rare occasions when a corporate executive will spend time in his/her company's retail executive, genuine observations will not come easily as an employee's perception is colored by his/her own preconceived ideas about what the company is. Additionally, it's difficult to perceive judiciously every single reaction one has but each easier to perceive on a surface level the reaction of others. For instance, when I read Underhill's observation for a need for a "transitional space" between the parking lot and actually starting to be absorbed in the retail space, I immediately understood what he meant, remembering my own shopping experiences and needing some time to take off my coat, close my umbrella, etc. Yet, I could never have articulated that in the way Underhill has done after minute observation.

I loved the chapter on the senses and shopping. One might say that the boom of the farmer's market in recent years can be partly attributed to a more interesting sensory experience than the often sterile, air-conditioned supermarket experience (of course, there are also political agendas and food issues that come into play). Yet, when I go to an interesting farmer's market with tables displaying a bounty of produce, freshly baked goods, beautiful flowers, handspun yarn...the displays of multiple colors, smells, as well as the varying characters of each vendor all make the farmer's market a more pleasurable experience than shivering through a supermarket where I am confronted with mediocre produce, food hidden under too much packaging, or aisles and aisles of frozen goods.

Underhill includes some great observations on dressing rooms, from its awful interior design and architecture to the shabby daily maintenance. The one further item I wish he had explored as a natural complement is the existence of bathrooms. It strikes me that too often independent businesses lose out by not having a public bathroom, even if it were just one small lavatory. While Starbucks helped invent the "third space" concept, I also think that it has a restroom is crucial. I can't count the number of times I went into a Starbucks to use the restroom and bought a coffee as I felt I would too shameless to just use their facilities.

For those who are interested in the minutiae of the retail experience (and I use the word minutiae in the most complimentary manner), this is a superb and tremendously enjoyable reading.


The Antelope's Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide
The Antelope's Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide
by Jean Hatzfeld
Edition: Hardcover
30 used & new from $4.70

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still an important historical event, September 4, 2009
That there is only one other review to date on Amazon indicates a low readership for The Antelope's Strategy. It's true that more pressing current affairs require our attention between Iraq, Afghanistan, the worldwide financial situation...and this doesn't even include the growing drug trade in Mexico nor the uranium enrichment in North Korea. However, the genocide in Rwanda still strikes me as one of the more important historical events in my lifetime as it reveals the continuing need for discourse on how and why ethnicity is manipulated in politics as well as the longterm effects of such politics.

In this accessible book which combines direct oral narrative with the author's literary shaping of events, the story post-genocide is told both by Tutsis and Hutus. In 2003, the mostly Tutsi government freed the Hutu prisoners who admitted their crimes in killing Tutsis. The freed Hutus were taught how to behave towards the survivor Tutsis and allowed to return home, to the silent shock of the survivor Tutsis who in turn were urged by the government to behave judiciously and neighborly towards the freed Hutus, even towards those who took part in killing their families and friends. With only a traditional and almost informal court (the gacaca) in which to air grievances and seek out further truths concerning that summer when a possible 75% of the Tutsi population was decimated, both Tutsis and Hutus face an uneasy coexistence but recognize the compromise as the only way for the nation to move forward.

In reading the book, I was stunned by the details about the daily existence during that genocide when Tutsis and Hutus engaged in a deadly hunting game with its own perimeters of hunting time and almost safe hours when Tutsis could emerge from the forest or the papaya marshes to forage for food. I had read about the churches where the massacres seemed straight forward. But within the forest and the marshes was an odder game, one with the slimmest chance of survivor for the Tutsis. Of the six thousand fled to Kayumba Forest, only twenty survived the daily ritual of running to evade the hunter Hutus who, armed with machetes, entered the forest each morning, then took a break for lunch, then returned to murder before finishing the day at five. The survivors from the papaya marshes tell a similar story: daily hiding in the water among vegetation during the daytime, then coming out in the evening as the Hutu hunters ate to forage for food. The goal for the Tutsis daily was to survive until mealtime. Here is massacre as a workday with the Hutus considering murders just another part of the job.

That the Tutsis and Hutus even manage to get on with life, after all that has happened and the crimes that have been committed, is quite something.


Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
by Julie Powell
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.07
494 used & new from $0.01

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Read Julia Child instead, August 24, 2009
The concept sounded so great: a woman struggling with her job and a bit of self-esteem taking on Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year. However, the concept is flawed by poor execution, both in writing and in surface self-reflection by the author. Julia Child started off as an amateur cook who developed a thorough appreciation for food. I somehow expected that Julie Powell would go through a similar journey, one where she learns about the nuanced pleasure of food in the midst of her life's turmoils. What she offers instead is a consistent stream of stories about herself interspersed with her attempts to follow Child's recipes and her intrusive takes on Julia Child's personal life. No wonder Child refused to meet or talk with Powell.

The book could have been much helped if Powell had considered that the food might be more interesting than herself. Instead, what is offered is a personal memoir that is like most other books cluttering the memoir section. The Julie/Julia notion is a conceit only without being integrated into the writing or Powell's final approach to food, which seems haphazard and too much of a fad. At best, Powell's book is a quick cute read but little more than that.

In terms of the writing, Child's is far superior. There is joy for food and life throughout Child's piquant yet detailed explanations of French cuisine. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is one of my favorite reads, both for the delicious recipes and the clear explanations.


Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
by Fuchsia Dunlop
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.85
92 used & new from $4.25

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, well-considered, and a delight to read, August 23, 2009
I had such a fun time reading Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir of her culinary adventures in China, ranging from her ex-pat years as a student in Sichuan to eating lamb on the outermost western fringes. What makes Shark's Fin and Shichuan Pepper shine is Dunlop's solid focus on the food and culture of China. I was worried that this would be another food book where a cute travel story would take the center. Not to worry. What Dunlop offers in lieu is a glimpse of the far-ranging variety of Chinese cuisine. Finally, I understand why I can buy lamb kebabs from a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Flushing, NY, or why there's a certain restaurant on Clement in San Francisco that offers an oyster pancake I haven't seen in other Chinese restaurants.

Near the end of the book, there's a melancholic note as Dunlop writes of China's pollution problem and increasingly homogeneous urban planning as well as the near decimation of its wildlife. Yet, it reflects a considered approach on Dunlop's part in understanding food as part of a larger culture. Such an approach can be seen from the very beginning when she writes about variations in Sichuan food based on the climate (the overwhelming fiery food of sweltering Chongqing to the mellower spicy sweetness of relaxed Chengdu).

Dunlop's writing skills are a plus. Her sentences are lively while being well-structured. Dunlop's memoir is a culmination of over 15 years eating and writing about Chinese food. I enjoyed the book thoroughly and am grateful that Dunlop has shared her expertise in such an accessible book.


Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown
Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown
by Edmund L. Andrews
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.39
147 used & new from $0.01

3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gossip vs. information, August 18, 2009
If you want to know more about the controversy surrounding Edmund L. Andrews' wife's bankruptcies, all you have to do is google "Edmund L. Andrews wife bankruptcy" and that will give you the gist of the controversy. However, if you wish to understand more about the mortgage crisis, the role played by Wall Street firms and rating firms such as Moody's, subprime mortgage lenders, the Feds, Alan Greenspan, AIG, and irrational exuberance, read the book.

While one can point to the obvious lack of disclosure on Andrews' part in leaving out his wife's bankruptcies, few can deny that Andrews has skillfully woven together the many different aspects of the housing crisis that led to the largest economic downfall in most people's memories. Even though I had diligently tried to follow the housing crisis and the economic crisis throughout its daily permutations, I always felt I wasn't getting the complete picture. Andrews' narrative of the different players (I finally understand AIG's role in it now as well as some of the key problems in Paulson's bailout plans!) is truly helpful in piecing together the many different pieces.

Was Andrews' own mortgage crisis precipitated by his wife's profligate spending? It could well be. But the amount of money detailed in her bankruptcy proceedings are nothing compared to the wealth we've all lost due to the greed and profligate spending of Wall Street players, subprime mortgage firms, and banks.


Selected Short Stories (Dual-Language) (English and French Edition)
Selected Short Stories (Dual-Language) (English and French Edition)
by Honoré de Balzac
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.03
56 used & new from $0.78

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed up editions, June 14, 2008
I went to the Powell's website and found the following information on the Dover edition:
This convenient volume includes 6 of the great French writer's most highly regarded short stories, including: "An Episode During the Terror," "A Passion in the Desert," "The Revolutionary Conscript," "The Forsaken Woman," "The Unknown Masterpiece," 2 more. Excellent new English translations on facing pages. Introduction. Footnotes.

The Penguin edition table of contents are what you get if you click on table of contents that is linked now for Search Inside. I've read this Penguin edition, and it's a good introduction to Balzac.

I would highly recommend Lost Illusions to anyone who has the time and patience to read a longer Balzac novel. Of the roughly 7 Balzac books I read last year, I consider it my favorite. I wish I could find all Balzac in translation; occasionally, I feel I should learn French just to read Balzac.

I will probably end up picking up this Dover translation eventually as there are some stories I haven't read yet.
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