Saturday, December 06, 2014

"The Food of a Younger Land," edited by Mark Kurlansky

Whether you cook or just bring your smile and enjoy the eats, holiday meals are a time when families typically share food traditions. Even a deliberate decision to try something new probably involves an excursion into the food traditions of another place or time. As a nation of immigrants, the U.S. has many food cultures brought from former homes and adapted for availability of ingredients. Other recipes and menus arose in place, as Native Americans and immigrant peoples learned to take advantage of local resources.

"The Food of a Younger Land," edited by Mark Kurlansky, is a collection of material compiled for the never-published "America Eats" project undertaken by the Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). "Food of a Younger Land" starts with a history of the Writers' Project and its accomplishments, as well as providing contextual commentary on the included materials from what remains of the original "America Eats."

The WPA, established during the great depression of the 1930s, was charged with creating productive jobs for unemployed Americans in all kinds of fields ranging from construction to fine arts. San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, for example, was a WPA project.

Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point in the fog
The Golden Gate Bridge vanishes into the fog

The Writers' Project put unemployed writers to work on documentary-type projects such as a series of guidebooks on various regions of America. Fifty local Writers' Project centers operated in 48 states. All sorts of writers were accepted to the program, from published novelists and poets to technical writers and anyone with sufficient literacy -- as long as they had no job, no money, and no property. Even now, many will recognize the names of writers including Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, and Studs Terkel -- all of whom worked with some aspect of the writers project.

The "America Eats" collection was one of the last undertaken by the Writers Project. It was intended to be a record of food and eating traditions in different parts of America -- complete with recipes and discussion of "controversial" differences between competing versions of iconic dishes (like clam chowder). Regional offices were given their assignments with a deadline for providing copy to the editor by the end of Thanksgiving week, 1941.

Reminders were sent out on December 3rd, but on December 7th the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and everything changed. The Washington DC office of the Writers' Projected instructed all groups to send in whatever they had, no matter how incomplete, in anticipation of disbanding for reassignments to the war effort. By May of 1942, the Writers' Project had become the "Writers' Unit of the War Services subdivision of the WPA." Writers were tasked with producing documents such as Sevicemen's Recreational Guides and books on military history.

"America Eats" materials sent in by the various regions -- mostly rough notes -- were turned over to the Library of Congress. There they sat -- without editing or indexing, much less publishing -- until rediscovered by the current editor.

The result is more of a reference than the sort of book one sits down and reads cover-to-cover. Nonetheless, the history of the Writers' Project and those involved with it is fascinating. The included essays and snippets from the regions are, as intended, a snapshot of pre-WWII American cooking and eating -- as well as writing styles. Food traditions covered include "Literary Teas" in New York City, Lutefisk in Minnesota, tacos in Los Angeles, Sioux and Chippewa foods and their preparations, African American traditions, and much more.

I would recommend "The Food of a Younger Land" to those interested in history, particularly domestic history. It would also be a handy reference for writers of fiction or nonfiction seeking details and voices from the time period covered, as well as those interested in writers from the period. In particular, a number of African American writers of the period participated in the Writers Project, although it is not always clear which writer wrote a specific piece.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Reading Wish List for 2015

I've been using the "BookWatch" app on my iPhone to keep an eye on what my favorite authors are doing. Combining that with reviews I've read or author interviews I've heard, I've put together a list of the ten books I'm most looking forward to reading in 2015. Some of these are already available, others have not yet been released:

1. "The Empty Throne" - When it comes out on January 6, 2015, will be book 8 in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales series (which I wrote about in a previous post). I actually still have books 6 and 7 to read, but they are fairly quick reading -- as well as addictive -- so I expect to finish both before the end of the year.

2. "Stonehenge" - This book is also by Bernard Cornwell, although it is not new (published in 2009). I've been wanting something set in the neolithic, preferably Orkney, but I'll take Stonehenge (and a dip into the bronze age). Folks on the Goodreads historical fiction group generally seemed to enjoy it, although it sounds like it's not typical Cornwell.

3. "Lamentation" - "Lamination," scheduled for availability on February 24, 2015, will be the 6th book in C.J. Sansom's series of novels featuring Tudor-era lawyer, Matthew Shardlake.  I've become hooked on this set of historical mysteries, and the central character -- a lawyer who can't let go of an investigation until he gets to the truth. By no means an action hero, Shardlake specializes in pointed interviews and sifting through mounds of administrative documentation to uncover secrets that dangerous folk would rather keep to themselves. Mostly I've consumed these books as audiobooks. I do like the narrator, so I'll probably go that route again.

4. "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" - "Assassination" is a collection of short stories by Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize winning author for her historical novels, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies." In contrast, these stories are set in modern times, and from the descriptions have something of a surreal touch. Having loved her Cromwell novels, I'd like to see what else she has up her sleeve. Besides, the title is dead intriguing!

5. "Revival" --  I'm considering the prospect of delving into Stephen King's latest novel with some trepidation -- and not because I'm scared of the horror aspects. While I'm generally a King fan, sometimes he just misses for me. Among his more recent works, I particularly loved "Duma Key," "11/22/63," and "Joyland." On the other hand, and I can't put my finger on why, but "Dr Sleep" just never grabbed me. I got somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 way into it, got tired of struggling, and moved on to something else. Maybe I'll give it another try some day -- as I always did like "The Shining." From the descriptions, "Revival" sounds like it might be similar to "Dr. Sleep," so I'm not sure how it will go, but I have enough overall faith in King to give it a hopeful try.

6. "Prune" -- "Prune" is the name of Gabrielle Hamilton's New York restaurant, the origins of which (among other parts of her life) she wrote about in her previous book, "Blood, Bones and Butter." As a memoirist, she wasn't afraid to come across as downright unlikeable (at least at times) at the same time as she is clearly gifted and hard working.

This new book is a cookbook from her restaurant. I have a lot of cookbooks, although I seldom follow recipes from them. I tend to keep them more for inspiration and to check technical details if I'm unsure how to do something. These days, I mostly try new recipes that I've found on a favorite food blog, or spotted on Pinterest. What appeals about this book is her cooking style: rustic, grouchy simplicity, based on high quality ingredients. 

7. "Stone Mattress" -- A collection of short stories by Margaret Atwood, author of "The Handmaid's Tale" and many more works that push genre envelopes.

8. "Blue Labyrinth" -- Blue Labyrinth is the latest (book 14) in the Special Agent Pendergast series by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. The series has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me -- the plots a bit too fantastical, and Pendergast a bit too much of a superhero. Still, the earliest volumes such as "The Cabinet of Curiosities" and "Relic" got me hooked. More recently, the plots and formula started to rely on chestnuts like "Secret Nazi holdouts conducting human experiments and plotting world domination in the Amazon jungle." I thought the well must have gone dry, and seriously questioned my loyalty. On the other hand, I did really enjoy the penultimate offering, "White Fire," so I'm willing to give this one a try.

Part of my addiction to the series is due to the wonderful narration of the audible versions by Rene Auberjonois ("Odo" from Star Trek Deep Space Nine). I would probably enjoy the phone book if he was reading it.

9. "Sleep Donation" --  Karen Russell's new novella might be worth a try. Her work twists and turns beyond everyday reality in a way intrigues me. I found her collection of short stories, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" to be a mixed bag. Some of the stories were amazing, others good and a few seemed like all set-up and no point. Still, she is one of the authors I follow on my "BookWatch" app.

10. "Travel as a Political Act"  --   Travel writer Rick Steves writes about how the act of traveling can and should broaden our world view. Rick concludes that travel (at least travel with an open mind) is incompatible with a narrow, fearful view of life. Rick outlines some of his points on his website.

While I totally agree with him, I have to wonder whether people become open minded because they travel, or are drawn to experience travel because they are already open minded. I suspect both factors are at work.

Scottish independence election signs, Stromness, Orkney
Neighbors in Stromness, Orkney, Scotland politely disagreeing on the independence vote, Sept 2014

Personally, my main interest in travel is to visit historical sites, but it is always interesting to chat about current events with locals when opportunities arise. It was fascinating, for example, to be in Scotland for the independence vote -- America could learn a lot about functional democracy.

You know what else opens the mind and leads to greater empathy? Reading!

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Saxon Tales, book series by Bernard Cornwell

I was in a mood for Vikings -- thanks to the history channel series ("Vikings"), listening to one of "The Great Courses" on the Vikings, and a recent visit to Orkney (which was ruled by Norse earls for hundreds of years). I wanted some good historical fiction about those years, preferably set in Scotland's northern islands. Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series wasn't quite exactly that, but on the plus side it is Bernard Cornwell -- whose Napoleonic-era Richard Sharpe series is a favorite of mine.

The Saxon Tales, of which there are currently 7 with an 8th on the way, and of which I've read 5 so far, follow the career of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred is Saxon by birth, who is captured as a child by Danish Vikings. One of the Viking leaders is impressed by the boy's fighting spirit, and decides to adopt him. Uhtred grows up and learns how to fight from the Danes, who have conquered land and settled in Northumbria. He takes on their pagan religion, goes on raids with them, and loves his Danish family.

Viking silver hoard (8 kg!), found on Orkney, housed in National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
When tragedy drives him back to Saxon life, and into the circle around Saxon King Alfred, Uhtred starts to find himself with a foot in both ways of life, and not entirely comfortable with either. Uhtred is a gifted warrior in either culture -- which, in an uncertain and tumultuous time, inevitably puts him at the center of the action. There is lots of action, and we get to go along!

Nobody writes battle scenes as well as Bernard Cornwell. Whether he's writing about Waterloo, Crecy, or the far older and less thoroughly documented battles leading to the birth of England, the reader comes away with an overview of the strategic chessboard of the entire engagement, as well as an up close and personal experience through the eyes of a soldier in the thick of the fighting. In the Saxon Tales, I was interested to read how combatants (might have made) defensive use of ruined Roman fortifications or even older hill forts -- shored up with wooden repairs, or just grabbing advantage of the available ditch and mound.

Uhtred's fortunes rise and fall throughout the series. His relationship with Alfred is a rocky one, and yet he never quite completely breaks away. Sometimes Uhtred's temper gets the best of his judgement, more often he simply fails at being a good courtier and instead speaks his mind -- and worse yet, is usually correct in what he says. Whatever his personal feelings about Alfred's behavior, Uhtred does respect Alfred's capacity as a ruler, capable of administering a large and cohesive kingdom. As much as he personally loves (some of) the quarrelsome Danish warlords, he doesn't see the same practical gifts in their governing style.
Viking graffiti from Maes Howe, Orkney,"Oframr Sigurtharsonr carved these runes."

I started reading the Saxon tales while we were on vacation, and have been buying them one by one. I've only just realized that collections are available, and I would suggest going ahead and buying them that way. If you like the books, you will have to have the entire series. I'm not sure the collections really save much money, but they certainly would save some effort in figuring out the sequence. There appear to be two collections available for Kindle, the first of which contains books 1-4, and the other books 5-7. Since I already have book 5, I guess I'll be sticking with singles.

In order, the individual titles are: 

  1. The Last Kingdom
  2. The Pale Horseman
  3. Lords of the North
  4. Sword Song 
  5. The Burning Land 
  6. Death of Kings
  7. The Pagan Lord 
The 8th book in the series, "The Empty Throne," is scheduled for publication in January 2015 -- and will be taking its place on my Christmas wish list.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Thousands of Images, Now What?" by Mike Hagan

I guess a couple of things convinced me that I finally needed to take the plunge and come up with a plan to organize and back up my digital photos:
  1. I started using my own photos for this blog, and discovered too many times that I knew I had just the right image to illustrate a post...somewhere....if only I could find it. This made me worry that some pictures might be lost for good, and not just missing among my messy files.
  2. I got a new camera to take on vacation with me. I love it, and as a consequence I'm taking more pictures than ever before.

Kindle Fire screen grab photo book

I've begun using Picasa, because it's free, plays well with Google Drive (facilitating back up), and has a basic editing capacity which serves most of my needs. Unfortunately, Picasa isn't all that useful as an organization tool: it finds all your image files but doesn't move them into an organized file structure. Or at least I couldn't figure out an obvious way to accomplish that task.
So, I set out to look for e-books that would help me use Picasa effectively. What I found written specifically about Picasa didn't answer my questions, so I broadened the search to general digital photo organization. After downloading and reading a few sample chapters, Mike Hagan's book, "Thousands of Images, Now What: Painlessly Organize, Save, and Back Up Your Digital Photos" was exactly what I was looking for.

Mike Hagan is a professional photographer, and discusses how to use professional tools -- such as Lightroom (Win or Mac) and Aperture (Mac) -- to organize, backup, and catalog your photos. These programs are expensive and way beyond my limited needs. However, the book discusses less pricy options as well (like Picasa), and gives clear explanations of how the two main types of "Digital Asset Management (DAM)" work.

Programs like Lightroom are "databases." That is, your actual image files aren't rearranged or changed by the program. It works like a card catalog, storing and indexing information to let you find and edit specific photos. It's easy to imagine how such a capacity would be invaluable for a professional, who might need to find pictures by date taken, subject matter, color palette, etc.

For me, the alternative "browser" approach seemed more straightforward and manageable. With this type of DAM, you move, rename, and open folders of images as they are stored. The simplest organization is based on date taken -- year, month, day, -- and keeps photo files in chronological order. I've added a brief description as well, so I'll know at a glance if a file from 2012 contains graduation ceremony pictures or vacation shots.

Back up, back up, back up. I know this, but still have had a few hard reminders. Hagan estimates that "serious amateur" photographers shoot 25,000 or more photos in a year. At 10MB each, that's a requirement for 25GB per year, or more for more photos in RAW format (whatever that is!). So, storage needs must be considered.

Hagan is not a fan of cloud storage due to slow speed, space limitations, and expense. However, the book is a couple of years old now, and prices on cloud storage have been dropping and free storage options have increased. The cloud might not be a feasible back-up choice for a professional, but for my own needs I think it's reasonable.

Altogether Hagan recommends backing up your images in three places: your hard drive, an external hard drive (that is not your working drive, but just for back up), and additional back ups to media such as DVDs --  ideally stored off site. I have a external hard drive for back up, but I'm also using cloud services as my "offsite" backup.

Organizing my photos is still a work in progress for me, though I feel I am finally on the right track. "Thousands of Images, Now What?" gave me an "adviser" to refer to, and I expect I'll be looking at it often as I work through developing a personal DAM plan. As I practice and (hopefully) get more confident as a photographer and photo editor, perhaps I'll also get more ambitious about the tools I'm using.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Wars of the Roses, History and Fiction

I noticed a recent spike in views of my post on Dan Jones' book, "The Plantagenets," and realized that his new book, "The Wars of the Roses," has just come out. I rushed right over to Amazon and downloaded a sample chapter. It's bumped everything else on my to-read list, but I do want to finish my current reads before starting it. I'm really looking forward to Dan Jones' take on the period, particularly what he has to say about Richard III, as well as Elizabeth Woodville (the "commoner" who became Edward IV's queen).

York and Lancaster family tree
Follow the roses: Lancaster, York, and Tudor family tree. Photo of display at Hampton Court Palace.
Last year while traveling in France and England, I motored my way through Phillipa Gregory's series of novels on the era, each featuring an important woman from one of the noble families. Although Phillipa Gregory is a historian, these are novels, and not the greatest of historical novels either, in my opinion. Still, I appreciated her focus on the female members of the great families of the time; all of these women were active in shaping historical events, even as history has tended to downplay their importance and record comparatively little of their lives.

Of the entire series (I've read five, but not the sixth), my least favorite was "The Red Queen," which tells the story of Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother. Margaret was a fascinating person of strong will and unlimited ambition -- for her son. It was the story-telling, not the underlying historical reality, that didn't work for me.

On the other hand, fanciful as they are, I did enjoy "The White Queen" and "The Lady of the Rivers." The "White Queen" was Elizabeth Woodville, who captured the heart of young Edward IV -- the first York king of the white rose badge. In history books such as Thomas B. Costain's series about the Plantagenets, she comes across as grasping and selfish -- using her position to enrich her large family. While there may be much truth in that, we should also remember that exploiting royal favor to acquire properties, titles, and advantageous marriages was what the entrenched nobility had planned for themselves. No wonder they resented this upstart Queen.

Phillipa Gregory reminds us that Queen Elizabeth had many enemies who wanted her set aside so Edward could make a more valuable match. Promoting her family helped to build a protective wall of powerful allies around herself and her children, as well as her extended family.

"The Lady of the Rivers" was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville's mother -- another romantic yet politically astute lady. Jacquetta's family ruled Luxembourg as Counts, and she had numerous relations among the royal families of England and the Continent. Her first marriage was to King Henry V's brother, John, Duke of Bedford. When Duke John left Jacquetta a young widow, she took matters into her own hands, and eloped with the Duke's former Captain of Guards, Sir Richard Woodville. Their union was both long and happy (as well as shocking to their peers at the time), with Elizabeth born as the first of 14 children.

Even better is the non-fiction "The Women of the Cousin's Wars," written by Phillipa Gregory in conjunction with other historians, David Baldwin and Michael Jones. The three sections of this book discuss what is known and may be surmised about Jacquetta, Elizabeth Woodville, and Margaret Beaufort. Each of the sections has a few pages of "Notes and Sources" as well as a bibliography for further reading.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

How to Catalog Your Personal Library Using the Goodreads App

If you love to read you probably know about Goodreads. Maybe you already use it to share ratings and reviews of books you've read, or to look for book recommendations from friends or other like-minded bibliophiles. What you may not know is that Goodreads includes all the tools you need to make a digital catalog of your entire personal book collection.

Why would you want to make a digital catalog of your personal library? If you're like me, you have hundreds of books and forget what titles are in your collection. Having a catalog handy on your smartphone while browsing at the bookstore can save you from accidentally re-buying a book you already own. A catalog can also help you weed out duplicates, select titles to give away if you need to thin the herd, or just be better organized.

Start by opening a free account with Goodreads, and then download the apps available for all your favorite iOS and/or Android devices. Your cloud account will sync across all your devices.

Kindle Fire Goodreads App

Here is what you need to know to get started on cataloging your books with Goodreads.

Entering book details:

  • Goodreads is owned by Amazon, so you can access details on your Amazon book purchases and add and rate them directly. Only those books you choose to include are added to your Goodreads shelves; nothing is included automatically. If you have a lot of Kindle books, in particular, this capacity provides a huge time saver in cataloging them.
  • For paper books not purchased from Amazon, the phone and tablet versions of the Goodreads app can use your device's camera as a barcode scanner to automatically enter any book's ISBN. 

  • The scanned ISBN will bring up all the book's details, including title, author, and a photo of the cover. Next you'll need to tap the "shelve" button, and place your book's information on a virtual shelf. You can create whatever shelves you like to organize your books, and edit those shelves at any time. Unlike a physical library, your Goodreads "shelves" function like tags -- so a single book can be assigned to multiple shelves.

  • If your book doesn't have a barcode, you can type in the ISBN and Goodreads will find the details. Just below the photo of the book cover, you'll find an icon of several books on a shelf. Tap that to see the drop-down menu that will let you tick a box to shelve your book. 

  • If your book predates the ISBN system -- and personally I have a lot of those -- just enter the title or author's name and proceed as above. 

  • As a last resort, you can enter all of the book's details by hand. Goodreads recommends searching first. 

  • Once you've entered and shelved your books, your data will be stored in the cloud and you can access it from your Goodreads account on any device. 

Exporting your catalog data:
Goodreads makes it easy to export and back-up your book data. On your desktop, go to the "My Books" page of your account. On the left hand side, under the "tools" heading, you'll find the "import/export" option. That will open the "My Books > Import" page. On the right hand side of the import page, you'll see the option to "Export Your Books." Click "export to a csv file." Your exported csv (comma-separated values) file will open in MS Excel.

You can also import data from other library databases or websites -- as long as they use supported file types. Full instructions are on the "My Books > Import" page.

I'm just getting started on cataloging my own personal library with Goodreads. In the process, I'm becoming reacquainted with old favorites I haven't read for years. Not to mention that all my books are finally getting a much-needed good dusting as I handle them for scanning and shelving purposes!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam," by Pope Brock

Pope Brock's book, "Charlatan," documents the life and career of of "Dr." John R. Brinkley, one of America's most successful quacks.

I read this book some time ago, but was reminded of it recently by a segment on the Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum" -- a favorite show of mine that I would recommend to anyone with a tendency towards ADD and an interest in odd stories from history. You can watch the segment on "Goat Testicle Transplant," online. Yes, you read that correctly, Brinkley's panacea for everything from "loss of male vigor" to cancer was transplanting the testicles from young male goats into humans. Women received transplanted goat ovaries. Actually, "transplant" is too dignified a term for what he was in reality doing: maiming people and stuffing goat organs into the wounds without much regard for sterile technique.

As synchronicity would have it, I ran across a blog post on "The Quack Doctor" in which director Penny Lane discusses her new film project, "Nuts! The Brinkley Story." Lane says:
NUTS! tells Brinkley’s story with animated reenactments, never-before-seen archival footage, hundreds of photographs, clippings, ads, etc., and interviews with some pretty funny historians. I think it’s a suitably colorful and eclectic way to bring this wacky story to life. I have completed a complete edit of the film and I’m raising funds now to finish it (primarily to complete the animations, which are gorgeous, time consuming and a bit expensive).
I checked out the film maker's Kickstarter page, and am very happy to report that her goals have been met and then some! Looks like a fun and thought-provoking film, and I look forward to seeing it. Here's the trailer:

But back to the book, which is a fascinating story of a successful huckster who became fabulously wealthy and was nearly elected Governor of Kansas. Perhaps even more interesting is what the story illustrates about human nature and the American psyche.

At the start of his surgical practice in 1917, John Brinkley was already an accomplished seller of useless patent medicines and fraudulent therapies. At the time, the science of endocrinology was in its infancy and just beginning to isolate and understand the activities of hormones such as testosterone.

Little bits of genuine information were quickly spun into pseudo-scientific theories promising restored youth. Some versions used injections of gonadal extracts, others implants of partial or intact organs from monkeys or even humans (recently-executed felons). Brinkley sold his version with a skillful charm offensive that made him a sure success.

Medical licensing was sketchy at best: never having graduated medical school didn't stop Brinkley from from obtaining licenses to practice in several states. Only the American Medical Association (AMA) showed much consistent interest in putting charlatans out of business, and dogged investigator Morris Fishbein pursued Brinkley for years. Despite the evidence (infection, tetanus, gangrene...), Brinkley's fans stuck by him -- it's hard to know if some patients were "helped" thanks to the placebo effect, or were just unwilling to admit they'd been taken.

Among Brinkley's true gifts a mastery of public relations was king. He hired a team of promoters to extoll his (fabricated and extravagant) successes in planted newspaper articles. For example, the Gettysburg Star and Sentinel printed that the Japanese government was requiring goat gland implants for all aged charity patients -- to restore them to working vigor, and get them off assistance. Further claims included that the children of goat gland recipients were showing signs of becoming "a superior type of human being..."

Brinkley moved on to run his own radio station, which popularized country music and blues as well as advertising his services. He made a promotional film shown in theaters around the country, and when he ran for governor of Kansas he was the first candidate to travel by airplane to campaign events.

Not until 1940 did the goat gland empire fully disintegrate into bankruptcy and prosecution. His death in 1942 kept him out of jail. Tributes to his intelligence and charm, if not his honesty or medical skill, came in even from some of his victims and bitterest enemies.