Friday, December 18, 2009

The Best Books of 2009

In the generous spirit of the holidays, this week I posed the (impossible) question of "What was the best book you read this past year?" to the rest of my fellow Warwick's booksellers. The idea was that they could share with you, the reader, the books that they most enjoyed from this past year. Early responses were, well, mixed...
"Best book published in 2009?"
"What if the best book I read this year was from 1748?"
"I can't decide - there were too many I loved."
"I can't decide - I hated them all."
"Awwwww, c'mon!"
"I told you to stay away from me! You're fired."
Despite the hardship imposed upon them by this monumental question, most of us were able to come up with a favorite book from 2009!

James:  "I'm fudging a bit on my pick for the best book of 2009 since it was originally published in 1964. However, reading A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, I remembered how reading Hemingway shaped the way I write. All it takes is one true sentence and nobody did it better than Papa."

Adriana:  "Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. It's about a lonely boy who lives an isolated life with an even lonelier mother. They spend Labor Day weekend with an escaped convict and it changes their lives forever."

Heather:  "Why is the The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton one of the best books of 2009? Well, perhaps it’s because every member of the staff who has read it loves and raves about it to anyone who asks. Or, perhaps it’s because Kate Morton is an author who capably weaves a spellbinding tale, one that moves smoothly between time periods exploring the lives of three women and their mysteriously interlocking life stories. With alternating narratives that are gripping and brilliantly told, The Forgotten Garden holds the reader’s attention in a way few novels can. Simply put, it is mesmerizing and thus my favorite novel from 2009."

Emily:  "Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I have a weird fascination with twins. And England. This is a (not scary) ghost story with a twisted aunt and a pair of English twins with a great surprise ending by the author of The Time Traveler's Wife. And its a lot better than The Time Traveler's Wife, by the way."

Alice:  "Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. For those who love Tudor history, a feast. The ever-fascinating story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, told through the life of an unlikely hero, Thomas Cromwell, chief of staff to Cardinal Wolsey and survivor of his fall to become Henry's divorce lawyer, trusted counselor, and, with Thomas Cranmer, architect of the English Reformation. Readers who remember Cromwell depicted as a conniving, remorseless, behind-the-scenes operator (A Man For All Seasons) will be startled to find in Mantel's character a Renaissance man - compassionate, sexy, and smart. Beautifully written, historically accurate and expertly realized, this novel will make you look at familiar Tudor characters in an entirely new light."

Vicki:  "Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom is a true story of hope, love, discovery, and personal reflection.  Albom reconnects with his former rabbi, Albert Lewis, who is ill and asks Mitch to write his eulogy.  So begins eight years of regular visits with Albert.  Along the way, Albom is sent to do a feature story on Christian Pastor Henry Covington, a former drug dealer and addict, whose faith has changed his life.  Albom's own faith had become one he didn't practice and one he didn't discuss.  Slowly, through his encounters with these two men, his perception of faith is changed.  Albom says, 'When things you assumed were going to be there forever are not there, you drift back to something you once had and you wonder why you let it go in the first place.'  This book has a timely message for all of us."

Margie:  "Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom. What a wonderful true story Mitch Albom has presented to us - with gratifying results. Have a Little Faith has made my beliefs in a higher power just that much stronger. We all need to have a little faith - not just in God, but in each other."

Jane:  "A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick - filled with great, suspenseful, seductive writing. A great fiction debut."

Rhonda:  "The Natural Laws of Good Luck: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage by Ellen Graf.  Ellen Graf, a sculptor living on a farm in upstate New York, decided to travel to China to meet her friend's brother.  Almost immediately in spite of a serious language barrier, they decided to marry.  Was it lust or love at first sight?  Neither.  It was a leap of faith unlike anything I have ever read.  Even better, this book is a true story.  Graf's memoir is a beautiful illustration of what those marriage vows of  'For Better or Worse, For Richer or Poorer, In Sickness and In Health' really mean."

John:  "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In evocative and moving prose, Kristof and WuDunn present a persuasive case that solving many of the world’s problems rests with reducing and, hopefully, eliminating the oppression of women. Throughout the book, they present harrowing stories of women and girls, but many of these stories are ones of hope and triumph over adversity. These stories also point the way to improving the global situation of women through education and microfinance. The authors hope that they will help to create a movement and offer a tool kit and examples for people who do want to participate. Quite simply, one of the most well-written and important books I’ve read."

Barbara:  "The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a sensitive, young Mexican-American boy who is born to write. An avid journal-keeper, his diaries become increasingly more interesting as he becomes involved with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and the People's Revolution in Mexico. When he finally returns to the US, he writes the novels he was meant to write, becomes famous and again becomes embroiled in the political hotbed of the McCarthy era."

Janet:  "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. I loved this book!  T.S. is gifted & precocious, wise beyond his years, but still, all-in-all just a 12-year-old boy. Travel with him by train across America as he runs away from his home in Montana to Washington, D.C. to receive a Smithsonian honor. Share his adventures along the way as he finds out about the elements of life that can't be mapped or diagrammed."

Scott:  "2666 by Roberto Bolano.  Every great independent bookstore has that young self-important firebrand of a bookseller who thinks that Roberto Bolano is the next great immortal of the outlaw canon of literature.  I so didn't want to be that bookseller, but I have to say 2666 fullfills my criteria for a masterpiece.  I have no idea what it's about, but that it creates its own unique, poetic, beguiling world that I found to be unlike anything I've ever read.  It is a meditative, dreamlike labyrinth through the author's own journey towards death.  Forget the hype, dismiss the tabloid nature of his biography and read this book, if you read any Bolano."

Seth:  "Tough call between T.S. Spivet and this, but the title says it all: Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. Imagine that you were born with the absolute, unquestionable knowledge that the world would end in a fiery comet collision somewhere around your 36th birthday. How would you live your life knowing that everything you say, think, or do is relatively futile – or at least decisively finite? Would you throw it all away, would you try & save the world, or would you This was a book that completely caught me off guard – both with Currie’s brilliant narrative crafting and with the story’s powerful, raw humanity. Sharp, intelligent humor permeates every page & is the driving force behind it all – without laughter, the very idea of this would be too morose & depressing. Instead, Junior’s life story makes for one of the most original & compelling novels I have read in a long while. It’s rare that you read a new novel & come out the other side knowing that it will become one of your all-time favorites...."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dear Mr. Oliver, It's Time For A Cholesterol Check. . .

On Wednesday, December 9th, Jamie Oliver's latest cookbook, Jamie's Food Revolution, was put through a rigorous real-world kitchen test, in the first of our Warwick's staff cookbook-themed potlucks.  Mr. Oliver's new book is directed towards wholesome, hard-working folk that don't have a lot of time to cook but love anything with Bacon fat in it.  Sounds like the staff at Warwick's!  What better way for booksellers to get to know a cookbook than to take it for a test drive?  Unfortunately, like the Ford Edge, this one is getting mixed reviews.  Jamie, we still love you, but a 'lug' of olive oil?  Really?  And man, you've got to put down the stick of butter.  Still, no one left the building hungry and, despite a criticism here or there, dishes did not go untouched.  Here's a run down of what was made, with chef commentary and photos (which definitely do not do the food justice):

Adriana made Chicken Tikka Masala:

"Although tasty, the recipe as written was too watery, and needed doctoring.  Overall, I would recommend it if you want a tasty curry and don't have a lot of time."

Phoebe made Camembert Pasta:

"Cheese and pasta, my favorite.  Camembert, garlic, rosemary and olive oil, all melted and gooey.  Delicious.  Easy.  Will definitely make it again."

Kim made Mega Chocolate Fudge Cake:

"Could have done without the nuts.  Loved the 'Squidgyness' factor, but it definitely needed the vanilla ice cream."

James made Beef and Ale Stew:

"Leave it to Jamie to show me one more way to consume ale. I made his Beef and Ale Stew recipe even easier by using a slow cooker for 8 hours on low. However, the wonderful aromas made it hard to sleep."

John made the Creamy Leek Bake:

I decided to make the "baked creamy leeks" because I found the picture of it one of the more appealing pictures in "Jamie's Food Revolution." I mention this only because the photography in this book leaves much to be desired. It seems that in an effort to make this cookbook comfortable and friendly for ordinary folks, the producers of the book have made a series of design decisions that hinder cooking: lists presented in paragraph form, cluttered photographic presentation, and less intimidating (that is, less colorful) photographs. Add to this the decision to abandon, in several instances, standard measures in favor of quaint expressions like "a lug of olive oil" and "a pat of butter." It is genuinely a shame that a cookbook with so many good and simple recipes has to be encumbered by these bad production and editorial decisions. The quality of the recipes became most evident to me at our potluck where all of the food on offer proved quite yummy. The leek dish I prepared is a surefire crowd pleaser as long as that crowd does not contain vegetarians or people shying away from excessive calories. Heavy cream and cheese make a decadent backdrop to leeks seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and thyme. The dish was easy to prepare. Do make sure you have the right size casserole or earthenware dish; the depth of the leek concoction (1 inch) is critical to the dish's success.

Scott made the Parsnip and Ginger Soup:

"It was not a terribly thrilling vegetable pureed soup, despite my hopes for something unique because of the ginger and parsnip.  The carrots, celery and onions just turned this into veggie soup with a hint of ginger, but most folks seemed to like it.  In a book of bad photos, this and the leek bake looked the best.  Jamie's soup chapter has a section of soup add-ons, like bacon, grated cheese, croutons, and other calorie bombs, and if I make this again I'll be backing the 'ol flavour truck up to the pot.  Honk, honk!"

Nancy Warwick made Carrots in a Bag and the Mini Shell Pasta with a Creamy Smoked Bacon and Pea Sauce:

"I love to cook but, almost by instinct, I'm opposed to the "chef-centric" cookbooks. I don't like a provocative picture of the chef, instead of a beautiful picture of the dish, next to the recipe I'm trying to prepare. I'm all about the food.  Having said that, a few years back I found myself sneaking home a copy of Jamie Oliver's "Naked Chef". With cover hidden from my family, I tried out some of the recipes. I was delighted with the results. When we received the most recent Jamie Oliver cookbook, "Jamie's Food Revolution", we decided it was the perfect choice for a staff test potluck-- the collection of recipes are easy to prepare, diverse and utilize affordable ingredients. The result: A number of employees described it as our best potluck ever (and there have been many)!  The one drawback of the cookbook is that many of the recipes depend on a lot of butter and oil. I thought about my own eating habits, which is to eat lean and healthy most of the time, and then splurge on some extravagant dish at home or at a restaurant. Jamie's book reminded me that great comfort food can be as satisfying as the most complex and involved of culinary inventions."

So, that's a run down of Jamie-palooza 2009.  We might do this again, so any cookbook suggestions would be helpful.  And no, we did not hire a professional photographer for the food shots.  Of course, neither did Jamie.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas Baking with Adriana

by Adriana

Once again, publishers are cranking out titles at a frightening pace in time for the holidays, and cookbooks seem to be leading the pack. If you don’t believe me, come in and take a look at our table in the cooking section. We couldn’t fit in any more books if we tried (and believe me, we tried). As always there are new offerings from Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart, Thomas Keller, and Gordon Ramsey, and I’m sure all are fine in their own respect. But I would much rather talk about some of the books that I plan on using this holiday season. One book I’m particularly excited about is the only one on my list specifically aimed at the Christmas shopper. Originally slated to come out last November but just recently released is Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Christmas. I would never normally buy a book dedicated solely to Christmas and all its glory, but being as I’m a dedicated Nigellite, I must. Luckily for us she does not disappoint. The recipes she shares are as decadent and indulgent as ever, whether you want a gleaming maple cheesecake or bourbon-glazed ribs. American reader’s should not despair and think that she presents us only with an English version of Christmas (star-topped mince pies, anyone?), although she includes that just in case that’s what you fancy. She actually has a deep appreciation for American cuisine as shown by her inclusion in this book of a promising recipe for fully loaded potato skins (yum). I know potato skins don’t really scream Christmas, but who doesn’t want nibbly bits while the bird’s roasting? You’ll be kicking yourself later if you don’t also try and make her gingerbread. I spent a year testing various gingerbread recipes to match the one my British husband so fondly remembered from his youth and never quite managed to get it right until I tried this recipe. Thankfully for myself, this one really, really worked. Your kitchen has never smelled this good!

Another book I’m crazy about right now is Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table. Wizenberg, creator of the wildly popular food blog Orangette, has delivered a charming memoir with food at its center. Whether she is discovering Pain au Chocolat as a child visiting Paris with her folks or working her way through what seems like thousands of roast tomatoes during her father’s last summer, Molly’s stories will never fail to make you laugh, cry, and feel like part of the family. I embarrassingly found myself crying in our break room, clinging to a tissue hoping no one would open the door. Molly shares with us intimate and cherished moments with us as if we were her dearest friend. Luckily she has opted to be generous and share the recipes that have meant so much to her over the years.

Last but not least, I would like to talk about a book that I bake the most from and has never failed to disappoint. Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito. Although this innovative cookbook came out last fall, it is invariably the one cookbook I have out at all times as it is the one I most want to cook from. Most cookbooks are hit and miss, with a sprinkling of good recipes versus ones that somehow don’t come out right. Baked, however, is not one of those. Every single recipe has come out exactly like the picture, no tweaking necessary. It is a great book for beginner level bakers, and different enough for the seasoned as well. One word of advice: proceed with caution if you decide to make the baked bars. It is so rich and so decadent it could possible incite an attack of gallstones as it did for my husband. Perhaps make that one for the office. I suggest you try the Pumpkin Chocolate Chip loaf instead. This is perhaps one the easiest and tastiest recipes I’ve tried. The beauty of it is you don’t need a mixer, just a little elbow grease. If you want to try something more holiday themed, you can make their chocolate bourbon pecan pie. Easy enough for someone who has never made a pie (me, before this book), or someone who simply wants to jazz up the pecan pie already in their repertoire. Happy cooking!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Monkeys in the Basement

by Heather
Have you ever picked up the latest book in your favorite series and thought; the person whose name is on the cover did not write this? And I am not talking to you James Patterson fans, because his covers clearly state (in fine print, well below Patterson’s name) that someone else was his “writing partner”.

The other day a customer and I had a discussion about this, namely because the new J.D. Robb (pseudonym/alter ego of Nora Roberts) book was out and we both felt strongly that the last book was not written by Roberts. I am a fan of the "Eve Dallas" series, have been for over 10 years, and have been greatly disappointed by the writing as of late. Okay, I know what you’re thinking; most people would not equate great writing and Nora Roberts, queen of the romantic suspense novel, but give me a chance to explain. I became a fan of Roberts as a teenager, my grandmother had all of her books (even the ones from her Silhouette years) and graciously loaned them to me. I really enjoyed her books, they were entertaining, with surprisingly well-formed characters. I have since evolved and matured in my reading habits (I hope), but retain a fondness for many of her backlist titles, occasionally revisiting them on a rainy day. What I love about the J.D. Robb series is that over the course of several years and a combination of 35 books and novellas you get to know the characters, how they’ll react, think, speak, they’re like old familiar friends. The books develop a cadence, one that is recognizable to anyone familiar with the series and I just didn’t see it in the last book. So, after our discussion I grabbed the newly released Kindred in Death and brought it home to make a judgment.

First thought: Who the h*!# wrote this?!

I don’t want to throw out definite statements (who wants to be sued), but I do not believe it was Roberts. As with her last few books, the characters who have been so well developed over the course of the series, are now flat, their dialogue is forced, unnatural, and not even remotely close to that of earlier books such as my personal favorite, Judgment in Death. This poor writing could not be that of Roberts (I can’t believe you can devolve that much as an author). So, who or what is authoring these books in Robb/Roberts name? My guess, Roberts has a basement full of trained monkeys who have been chained to small desks and tasked with the challenge of continuing a series. That or some Grad school student eager to be in print, despite the lack of recognition, is desperately attempting to write filler for an outlined plot created by Roberts. Let us just hope that this is not so, because undoubtedly that student would get some sort of publishing contract, subjecting us to more one-dimensional characters and flat storylines. I would rather have the series end than being subjected to this hack writing style.

I do want to make something clear here:

Despite this rant I want to urge readers not to be deterred from this series. The last few books aside, the series, which begins with Naked in Death is remarkably innovative, imaginative, and generally enthralling. The plotlines are unique and engaging, the setting hip, futuristic, yet gritty. The characters are human, developing very emotional and human relationships, friendships, and partnerships. They become old friends whom you recognize and enjoy with each book. I suppose the venom, which is so present at the start of this entry, is the great disappointment that these friends, with whom I have been acquainted for the past 10 years, have undergone small personality changes which alter who they have always been. It’s like pod people have taken them over; they might look the same, speak the same, but they are altered and no longer that which made them unique and likable. So, perhaps this might shed a light as to why I would rather have the series end than see these fictional characters who have seemed so real, become two-dimensional parodies of their former written selves.

So, who’s the mysterious culprit, the one altering my favorite characters, and causing me such angst and frustration (I mean come on, I’ve become so emotional about the series that I’m actually blogging about this)? I hope it’s not Roberts (still a fan, read Honest Illusions, one of my much read favorites), but based on the writing quality, I’m going with the monkeys!