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Archive for the ‘Mindy’s Picks’ Category

Lucid Food isn’t strictly vegan like the four cookbooks reviewed earlier this week.

Its focus is on sourcing food more ecologically and conscientiously. This makes it an excellent resource for omnivores bothered by factory farming practices and their impact—square with the slow food, clean eating, sustainable agriculture, and locavore movements. I did find Lucid Food to be decidedly vegetable-focused and the many creative vegan recipes included are full of exquisite flavors. Author and catering chef Louisa Shafia really backs up in her life what she writes about in this cookbook by the way she does business; her catering company is also called Lucid Food and practices an innovative waste-free approach.

…more than eighty-five healthful, seasonal recipes that will guide you toward making earth-friendly choices about what you prepare for meals…

Shafia suggests ways to choose fish and seafood more thoughtfully. I learned that the farming of mussels actually inspires cleaner coastal marine stewardship without the use of antibiotics and chemicals, about wild-caught species that are caught using methods that don’t kill unwanted animals in the process, and other safer choices for the eco-conscious eater. We can consume less by using seasonings to add briny flavors associated with fish dishes to tofu, tempeh, beans, and other proteins, still satisfying taste buds without adding to the imminent crisis predicted—that worldwide fish and seafood populations may disappear before mid-century.

This is a beautiful book and I can’t wait to cook more of its fine, elegant recipes that are a fusion of tastes and cultural traditions.

Check the WRL catalog for Lucid Food and Louisa Shafia’s latest cookbook The New Persian Kitchen.

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Vegan and locavore enthusiast Jae Steele aims to educate us about food’s origins—that is, how far it might have traveled to reach your local grocery market. She wants to equip us with the know-how to minimize our impact on the planet and its inhabitants when shopping for plant-based food locally.

First, and foremost, she clearly values and encourages the infusion of fun and joy into your lifestyle, wherever you live. In her book, I finally met a vegan who acknowledges that there are eaters who just don’t like each and every vegetable—no force feeding here! You’ve only gotta eat foods you like.

It’s not enjoyable if you’re feeling shamed or guilted into it, so let’s focus on doing the best we can—and doing it joyfully.

Packed with useful information, Jae becomes an irresistible friend motivating you to thoughtfully plan weekly meals and seasonal produce shopping, and she makes it all so fun! Learn how to explore a variety of veggies and fruits seasonally. You already knew that folks are asking questions at the farmer’s market, but if you’re feeling tongue-tied, Jae will arm you with the knowledge to get out there and get to know your food and the farmers who grow it more intimately. She includes great details for creating an indoor composting system using red wriggler worms, which I seriously might try, because I’m not quite ready to garden beyond my deck and in pots, let alone start tilling the yard.

Recipes are supplemented with fact-filled charts on individual plants’ versatile uses and health benefits. Woven into Jae’s very clear instructions are tips that most cookbook authors fail to provide such as a thoughtful hint to zest the lemon before you slice into it for juicing—I tried to get the zest from an already-squeezed lemon once and have the scars to prove it!

Check the WRL catalog for Ripe from Around Here.

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Here, in the middle of the week, I’d like to address you middle-of-the-roaders about a book that ensures that veganism is not only for celebrities, that you mustn’t wait until you’re making big bucks to take the vegan plunge.

Victoria Moran gently instructs in the ways of being vegan, without judgment, without scolding those who claim to be vegans who eat fish (you either are or you aren’t a person who doesn’t eat animals), with only a subtle amount of coercion through the storytelling she feels obligated to impart, as a witness to the deaths of animals at slaughter and the horrific conditions of the dairy, poultry, pork, and other animal product industries. Some may have heard it all before—a lot of shocking videos circulate the internet—but for those of you who’ve been oblivious to this media outrage, her essays may cause you to pause before you order that next chicken sandwich.

Even if you’re already convinced that vegan is best, you feel handicapped by the outrageous price difference between organic, locally grown produce at the trendy farmers’ markets and the genetically modified, pesticide-coated, homogenous assortment in your supermarket and discount store grocery aisles! What to do???

Forty brief chapters with facts, personal stories, and guidelines introducing you to vegan concepts and cooking techniques each conclude with a recipe. It’s meant to make plant-based cuisine possible for every kind of eater with any kind of income, not just the elite many of us believe are the only folks who can actually afford to live a vegan, organic, eco-conscious, locavore’s lifestyle. Basically, the book is for those of us who live “main street” lives, not “Fifth Avenue” existences. Moran addresses the fact that wherever you are with these goals, it’s okay; you don’t have to do everything perfectly from the beginning.  Our heartstrings are often pulled by myriad causes. She nudges us in the most compassionate direction, and seems to want us to prioritize minimal impact on the animal world above concerns for our individual health if we truly wanna go vegan—are we okay with that? She challenges us to think about such things as we progress.

But you can only do what you can do, especially if you’re raising a family, and stretching paychecks has become an acrobatic feat.


For example, though we are encouraged to support the organic movement, which she says will become more affordable as demand increases (put your money where your mouth is), she’s realistic about such dilemmas as eating organic all the time being terribly more expensive. She helpfully elucidates a “dirty dozen” list of produce to avoid if not organic and a “clean 15″ list of more economical fruits and vegetables you can buy without worrying over the lack of an organic label (sourced from Environmental Working Group).

A very comprehensive collection of appendices provide additional resources and bibliographies for those who want to take things to the next level, from where to go online for further research to where to buy your clothes, shoes, and household cleaning supplies without harming animals. This book is worth picking up even if it’s just for the to-die-for-yet-guiltless Chocolate Mousse recipe—putting together the unexpected ingredients required a leap of faith but I was astounded by the results.

Check the WRL catalog for Main Street Vegan.

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jacket.aspxPersonal chef to Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Roberto trained as a master chef, not a master vegan chef! He learned to substitute meatless ingredients in his first week of employment with the celebrity couple who’d gone vegan. All I’m thinkin’ is: not vegan, doesn’t cook vegan, Ellen and Portia determined to live vegan, Roberto must have been spectacular in their eyes (and his references’) despite a lack of experience! I imagine a shortage of truly vegan chefs at this point in culinary history, so I suppose a truly fine chef can adapt. The proof is in the… truly tasty dishes you can create with his cookbook. Perhaps your favorite will be Red Beans and Rice—it’s Ellen’s—served each Monday.

Packed with “meaty” and “cheesy” recipes substituting vegan ingredients while aiming for equivalent texture and taste, vegans with a fond taste for burgers, quesadillas, pizza, pasta, and pork will find much to love. Now, in my household, in addition to trying to please the meat-lovers in my family with plant-based no-meat-or-dairy recipes, I’m avoiding refined sugars plus seeking real, cleaner food. And while some of the commercial ingredients need scrutiny, Roberto’s ingredients are fairly easy to identify, making vegan cooking more convenient for us busy folks. The “Breakfast” section delighted me by using no sugar other than natural fruits, Agave nectar, and pure maple syrup. Folks, it seems to me that going vegan shouldn’t equal loading up on sugar daily! “Desserts” will satisfy those who desire to live it up occasionally with such treats as the incredibly simple Pumpkin Pie and fiercely scrumptious chocolate cake, Vegan la Bête Noire (The Black Beast).

Very useful is the section “Condiments, Sauces, and Dressings,” recipes that should adequately substitute for some of the staple ingredients of meat-milk-and-cheese-eating culture, including cream cheese spread (using cashews, tofu, and savory seasonings), sweetened condensed nondairy milk with cornstarch, sugar, almond milk, and vanilla (used in “Desserts”), and a very passable Caesar Dressing with no eggs, anchovies, or cheese. I’d been looking for better natural salad dressings made without sugar or corn syrup and Roberto provides a variety.

This is a handsome book—well, Roberto’s on the cover, so that was easy—with color photos of real food, not fancy or over-garnished—how real [vegan] celebrities might eat on ordinary days in the privacy of their homes! Plus, this book helps you feed the true carnivores at your table without sacrificing your vegan principles. The text addresses ordinary cooks who love good food, family time, and entertaining. I absolutely love it when nearly all recipes are complemented with visuals to aid those of us without a personal chef. There are sweet photos of Roberto, his wife, and their son cooking together. Ellen wrote a nice afterword for their chef’s book and features him on her television show. Portia’s story told in the foreword brought tears to my eyes and may convert many a carnivore to veganism.

Search the WRL catalog for Vegan Cooking for Carnivores.

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This week, Mindy highlights titles from the rapidly growing universe of vegan cookbooks.

Embark on a culinary adventure with this mind-blowingly beautiful showcase of very elegant vegan cuisine, artfully presented in jewelescent photography and a very eye-pleasing graphic design format. I love the subtle color-coding of warmish pastel-tinted recipe pages that distinguish “morning” from “afternoon” and “evening,” closing with “late night” and “very late night” (for your midnight cravings). It’s refreshing—not the usual categories of breads, soups, salads, entrées, etc…, no entire meal plans either, just fine examples of fancy vegan recipe standouts to fall in love with.

Shuldiner wants his readers to venture into previously unexplored territory, recommending we give any intimidating or obscure items a first go even though it’s possible to substitute some ingredients with more familiar items. Thankfully, hard-to-find food items don’t predominate, but a few did have me searching online for definitions and sources: agar, yuba, sumac, and pomegranate molasses, not your every-day staples. A list of mail-order and online resources is included. Some of the exotic cooking implements he suggests I was not inclined to acquire—Shuldiner has a recipe for Chocolate-Tahini Timbales cooked in timbale (aka baba) molds, which will surely taste just as exquisite cooked in mini-muffin or popover tins (though not nearly as cute as the pictured “corks” or “bouchons” as they’re called). I’ll cook just about anything with the word “chocolate” involved.

Shuldiner doesn’t use this book to engage in any political or environmental debates about veganism. He merely aims to share his supreme vegan creations for those who want to enjoy imaginative plant-based recipes and to dispel any imaginings of vegan blandness. Gourmet-literate cooks who want to impress guests with fancy vegan food can’t go wrong with this lovely book, and there are many unique and appealing appetizers to try. Vegans, regardless of whether they consider themselves purist, can take their usual fare to the umpteenth level of class with these recipes.

Check the WRL Catalog for Pure Vegan.

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Priceless is a memoir about the true crime undercover investigations carried out by FBI Agent Robert K. Wittman. Since the late 1980s, Bob Wittman was the original solo art crime investigator for what became the FBI’s Art Crime team in 2004, now numbering 14 agents who are well-versed in the fine arts, skilled with undercover work, and are prepared to rapidly deploy to any worldwide site for art theft recovery work and sting operations, often in cooperation with international law enforcement agencies. The FBI updates an online top-ten listing of art crimes and maintains a database of stolen art.

The book is arranged so that you’re following developments in FBI Agent Wittman’s career as well as some pivotal events in his personal life throughout the book. However, each chapter neatly portrays a particular case and its wrap-up. There is one thread running from the beginning through the end, the notorious unsolved 1990 case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft. Wittman’s frustrating battle with the restrictions under which he had to work in the FBI’s bureaucracy, including power struggles with senior officials, seems to provide some clues as to why this case might have been solved long ago had it not been so botched by red tape.

The stories truly bring the high-stakes investigations of art theft to life for the lay reader, and open up our eyes to the realities of art crimes. The biggest revelation in this book is the fact that those who steal art are seldom glamorous, handsome and powerful art connoisseurs, as they have been portrayed in films such as Dr. No or The Thomas Crown Affair. That characterization may be true in some cases, although they are usually your typical thugs who can’t resist taking something that seems incredibly valuable yet easy to steal for even the dumbest of crooks. Some of the book’s photos of captured thieves make that contrast startling. As security systems and staffing have become more sophisticated today, even better organized art theft rings have staged some thefts on the level of Ocean’s Eleven style drama, but most of the crimes investigated by Wittman and told in Priceless are more a case of your average guy taking advantage of an opportunity to get away with something for money.

These are very interesting and sometimes thrilling tales.  They’ll take you behind the scenes of the FBI and around the world to exotic locations and scenarios, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Look for Priceless in the WRL catalog.

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Thrillers rarely come along that are created with as much verve as Headhunters, a standalone novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, who also writes the Harry Hole series. The crafty, intelligent plot has a bit of noir as well as some jaw-dropping comic moments; you won’t believe the literally sticky situations that come up amid Hitchcockian twists and turns. You’ll also find well-developed characters despite the book’s brevity (less than 300 pages), which I always appreciate.

Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief to maintain a lavish lifestyle for his wife. He is also clearly trying to compensate for his short height and his insecurity about having such a gorgeous wife, terrified that she’ll discover his true colors. In Roger’s misguided drive to supplement his already lucrative work and preserve his marriage, he suddenly finds himself caught in a web of unclear motives and loyalties, with no one to trust. He wonders just how long he’s been the target in someone’s larger scheme rather than solely the mastermind of his own crimes.

Clas Greve is not only a brilliant and devilishly handsome corporate icon, he’s also a tried and tested covert special forces operative skilled as another type of “head hunter.” His history with GPS tracking technology landed him the CEO position with a major corporation rumored to have lost him following a takeover. Roger Brown’s wife Diana, who meets Greve through her art gallery, tips Roger off to Greve’s availability as a potential CEO candidate, and Roger thinks he is perfect to head a competing GPS technology firm. Diana also tells the tale of a missing masterpiece by Rubens that was found in Clas Greve’s grandmother’s apartment in Oslo. Not only does Roger think he has found the perfect executive for his client, he plots to steal the work of art that might set him up in luxury for life.

Pampered, polished Roger, a sophisticated businessman and very classy thief, may be in over his head, but in the course of an adventurous and outrageous series of circumstances, he reveals his true grit. The reader will end up rooting for this undeserving hero. Fans of Stieg Larsson, Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen are likely to be enraptured.

“MPAA rating: R; for bloody violence including some grisly images, strong sexual content and nudity.” If you are over 17, and know that you could at least stomach Pulp Fiction or Fight Club, don’t let this intimidating film rating prevent you from viewing the riveting Norwegian film version of the novel. Despite the rating, I found it less disturbing than expected, not as violent or brutal as your average Tarantino flick—the murders in Headhunters come across as rather accidental, not cold-blooded or ultra-disturbingly violent. Yes, there are some graphic scenes, but you’ll be so caught up in the unexpected plot twists that I doubt you’ll find them too extreme—well, except for one scene reminiscent of the unforgettable outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed suspense this much since Fargo. What you should know is that the details in some scenes are so much more graphic in the book that you’ll be glad that the director chose to leave them out!

The DVD has settings for viewing in Norwegian with subtitles or with English dubbing. I enjoyed it in Norwegian more because the English was dubbed with American accents. Roger Brown’s character is British and all the other characters are either Norwegian or Dutch, so it just made more sense to use the English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for the book 

Check the catalog for the ebook

Check the catalog for the DVD

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Shapiro uses a true crime event, the 1990 theft of priceless works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, as the backdrop for this engaging novel about a young artist with outstanding talent but a soiled reputation whose susceptibility gets her neck-deep into a forgery scheme. Cleverly, author Shapiro inserts a fictional masterpiece by Degas that, of course, was not among the 13 works stolen in real life. This way she is able to weave an entirely new provenance, history, and fate for her invented painting for the sake of this story, which includes a fictional alleged relationship between the museum’s founder Isabella and Edgar Degas.  Clues are slowly revealed to the reader through the inclusion of a mysterious collection of undiscovered letters composed by Isabella, telling all to her favorite niece.

Reluctant at first, but eventually coerced into accepting that her part in copying the painting is innocent—it’s apparently legal to copy art as long as one doesn’t try to pass off the forgery as the original—Clare Roth feels safely distanced from any related criminality. She convinces herself that it’s legal to create a fine copy of an original masterwork; after all, she legitimately copies masterpieces for a fine art reproduction business.  She’s in denial, however, that storing the stolen art in her studio home or developing a romantic attachment to the art dealer makes her an accessory to the crime. Feeling removed from the Gardner theft, and unconnected to any of the buyers or sellers interested in the proposed forgery, Clare still becomes increasingly enmeshed as the plot unravels, family secrets are uncovered shedding new light on the museum’s history and benefactor, and the authenticity of a valuable masterpiece is questioned.

Those who love true crimes and/or mysteries with a sprinkling of romance (that doesn’t dominate a story) are likely to enjoy this novel. It will also appeal to those who like contemporary novels based around true events.

Information on the real art theft in the wee hours following Saint Patrick’s Day reveling is described on the Gardner museum’s Website and also in The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser. Art investigators are still trying to recover the stolen artworks, and a $5 million reward is offered for information leading to their safe recovery.

In The Art Forger, the device of using a bolder and smaller font to distinguish sections in the novel that describe events that occurred years earlier helps to keep time and details straight. Unfortunately, this technique was lost on me as I was reading the e-book version; it’s there but I just didn’t notice it easily on my particular device—just thought I’d mention that for those of you with e-readers.

Check the WRL Catalog for The Art Forger, available in print, large print, on CD, and e-book.

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I was instantly absorbed in this fast-paced, detective-style investigation of the mysterious manuscript, the “Crown of Aleppo.” Parchment fragments of the ancient codex are still unaccounted for today, so those who want the book to end with a nice neat conclusion or happy ending should not even get started. However, those who love a good unsolved mystery and a series of unreliable accounts from multiple viewpoints, perhaps reminiscent of Iain Pears’s novel,  An Instance of the Fingerpost, are likely to love this story. One after the other, we read contradictory accounts of the same event in Aleppo, Syria. In 1947, anti-Jewish violence protesting the creation of the state of Israel endangered the sacred texts, which were housed in the Jewish synagogue in the city; consequentially, most of Syria’s Jewish community fled. Amid the chaos, parts of the document disappeared. Various individuals closely associated with the synagogue claimed credit for protecting the codex.

Investigative reporter Matti Friedman bravely followed an obfuscated trail, having to carefully negotiate his way into archives, museums, and libraries, and into the trust of those who may harbor what truths still exist in living memory regarding the codex. Along the way, he discovered a number of cover-ups, suppressed documentation, and red herrings, yet he relentlessly and obsessively pursued the previously untold story.

The tenth century “Crown” is the oldest Hebrew Bible manuscript, considered the authoritative text from which all copies of the Torah were meant to be hand copied in the old days. All sorts of legends and pesky rules, not very well suited to the preservation of disintegrating, aging old manuscripts, surround the “Crown,” including the stipulation that it was never to be moved from its location in Syria (riot, fire, and political unwelcome brought an end to its residency of over a thousand years), and that no one would be allowed to photograph or scan it (a rule certainly not instated before its most recent centuries). Therefore, when leaves of the folios went missing, no photographic images existed to at least preserve their memory, such as those we have to remember many stolen artifacts and fine art these days.

I just loved reading about this great mystery, and it kindled in me a new interest in other investigations of manuscripts with storied pasts.

Check the WRL catalog for The Aleppo Codex

Check the catalog for the ebook version

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All this week, Mindy reviews books about art theft, starting with two titles about some of the more sensational cases:

Museum of the Missing (2006) and Stolen (2008) are very similar booksboth have introductory material written by Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a tool used worldwide to authenticate artworks and aid in the recovery of stolen art. Some of the true crimes described in the earlier work are also in Stolen. Both include pages filled with color illustrations of lost art and the fascinating stories detailing what is known about their thefts. (Those who are tracking the fluctuating state of art theft cases may also want to follow current events. One way that I have been doing that is with a Google alert that sends newly published articles and blog posts to my email inbox daily.)

These art crime stories range from sad, disturbing, and shocking losses of our cultural heritage to hilarious and often audacious stupid-crook capers. The good news is that a number of stolen works of art have been recovered by art crime investigators, often working in undercover sting operations designed to thwart criminal schemes. It’s delicate work, often prioritized in favor of recovering works of art unharmed rather than on locking up the culprits who stole them. Appeals to the public are often made, with rewards offered, without fear of prosecution if involved.

The reality is that the high-priced art world often makes the headlines with record-breaking art sales. This attracts thieves who can’t seem to resist. What thieves unfortunately fail to calculate is the market for fencing their loot. Thus, they’re sometimes stuck with stolen art, and without backgrounds in art history or an acquired taste for fine art they seldom show any concern for its preservation. Thieves who couldn’t find a buyer have sometimes destroyed the stolen art in order to eliminate the evidence of their crime. Sculptures are stolen for their metal content and melted down for scrap.

Houpt and Webb each do an excellent job of storytelling about these intriguing art thefts. They also provide a great deal of insight into the history of art and what has made stealing it such an irresistible crime. A nice shelf to browse for more titles like these is located in the true crime area of 364.162.

Check the WRL catalog for Museum of the Missing

Check the catalog for Stolen

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I used to read and re-read this novel over and over again, especially during my college years. It always seemed to be the one I’d pick up when procrastinating or killing time around finals time. Always fascinated with artists and how they each discover a unique personal vision, I felt that this book captured the artist’s internal development and anguish so well. It also dealt with a religious subject that I knew very little about but found very intriguing. It captured the angst of a person responding to his innate passion as an evolving creator while also receiving powerful spiritual messages and under constant societal and familial pressure.

Asher is the only child of orthodox Hasidic parents whose livelihood revolves around service to God and the requirements of their religious community. Asher’s father has a very important job directly reporting to the Rebbe or spiritual leader of their Hasidic group in post-World War II Brooklyn, New York. His father must travel frequently for the Rebbe and expects Asher to behave appropriately and reverently as has always been expected of members of his family and community. It is difficult for Mr. Lev to accept Asher’s insatiable compulsion to express nearly everything he sees and experiences, every emotion or thought, through drawings and images. Even before he’s presented with conventional drawing tools, he is discovered using the ashes from his parents’ cigarettes to create images on paper as early as age four. Asher’s mother, in a position to witness the naturally unfolding quality of Asher’s prodigal gift more directly, seems to embrace Asher’s gift more easily, yet she must enforce her husband’s demands.

We learn in the first few paragraphs of the novel the shocking fact that Asher Lev, an artist of rare talent, has become famous by painting an iconic Christian image in his “Brooklyn Crucifixion” painting despite having grown up as a strictly religious Jew.  How this Hasidic Jew grew up to become an artist who paints Christ on a cross is a very engaging tale, told in the artist’s point of view, and reads much like a memoir. Asher Lev’s act is dramatically symbolic and forges a permanent barrier between himself and his sect and family.

Many would say that the book is hard to finish, with its slower pace, but I found that to be no trouble at all. In fact, I somehow found it to be a page-turner I could not put down late into the night, even when I was re-reading it.

Check the WRL catalog for My Name is Asher Lev.

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This is my favorite exercise video, not only for its glorious setting and background music, but because I can actually do each exercise, all the way through from beginning to end, without wasting precious time or feeling hopelessly out of shape. I feel great afterwards, especially if starting my day.  Now, that does not mean it lacks challenge for intermediate yogis, or that it’s appropriate for a beginning Yoga student. In fact, this program is best utilized by those who’ve received sound one-on-one or group instruction on the basic movements of Yoga. You want to make sure that you’re using proper form and posture, so as to prevent back injury or pulled tendons, etc…, and have received sound feedback and correction from a wise instructor. The most important thing I’ve learned about Yoga is never to feel you must compete with others, simply to improve yourself gradually at your own pace. There are always modifications and props to help you manage more difficult poses until your body gains the flexibility it needs to stretch as well as those featured in videos like this most awesome one.

Ali Macgraw and her gorgeous model yogis perform the workout designed and led by Erich Schiffman with his soothing voice against the breathtaking backdrop of the brilliant White Sands of New Mexico. The musical accompaniment, with original score by Lucia Hwong and tracks performed by the hypnotic band “Dead can Dance,” rich with exotic vocals and enchanting drumbeats, is so incredibly relaxing that I can not only use this routine to awaken and energize me early in the morning but alternatively find it to be a calming antidote for winding down at the close of a stressful day. I have found that the meditative aspects of practicing Yoga are essential to my enjoyment of it and make it more beneficial to my entire being, beyond the physical. Even though the year of this DVD’s release may seem dated, the music, cinematography, even the yoga attire and overall production still seem very cool.

Check the WRL catalog for Ali Macgraw: Yoga mind & body.

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Captivated by the pages in Gap Creek devoted to the slaughtering of a hog and the rendering of its fat, I have shown that passage to several people who, after reading that one section, immediately proceeded to read the whole book in less than a day or two.

I was taken aback by how interesting I found it to read such raw detail about a process that I would have absolutely no opportunity or desire to participate in, but the detailed prose made me feel so familiar with the unpleasant work that I could almost smell it. This was the first time I noticed myself so engrossed in a story that I felt as if I could be there, working as hard as Julie Harmon; in fact, I wanted to be able to work as hard as Julie. I would not wish upon myself the hardships or poverty of her turn-of-the-century Appalachian life, but I envied her character’s drive and unquestioning energy to do what’s necessary. Our lives these days are often rife with options, the easy route freely taken without the consequences of starvation or loss of life too common a hundred years ago. I’ve witnessed older members of my family who work with such force and have never found within myself such stamina. Today, I suppose it can be found most often in elite athletes, willing to push their bodies to their absolute limits.

Even in Julie’s day, and among her family members, she is an uncommonly strong and intensely diligent workhorse, so much so that this quality stands out more than beauty for good-looking Hank, who stuns her by offering his proposal of marriage. Their married life proves to be fraught with unforeseen challenge and misadventure. At times, it seems that their life could not possibly get worse but then it surely does. The reading of Gap Creek is an experience you will not forget or regret.

Look for Gap Creek in the WRL catalog.

I eagerly await the upcoming release in late August of the follow-up novel, The Road from Gap Creek.

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blackstallionThe Black Stallion is one of my all-time favorite films, and it stuns me to encounter individuals who have never heard of it, which sometimes happens when I suggest it to families looking for movies that will entertain viewers of all ages.  It often shows up on lists of great movies and also on lists of films containing minimal dialogue. The film is based upon Walter Farley’s children’s novel of the same name.

Visually mesmerizing, it’s also a great title for those learning the English language. The opening segment of the film is perfectly scored to music, especially a scene where the music is timed with the patient attempts of the boy to encourage “the Black” to join him in the sea so that he can finally ascend the horse’s great height to sit on his back and ride him. The reflections of light in the tropical waters, the endless sky, contrasted with the horse’s intense darkness and the pale yet sun-freckled flesh of the lonely shipwrecked boy are unforgettable. I admit, however, that at home with my DVD it is often during this scene that I find myself drifting off to sleep due to the relaxing atmospheric quality of the cinematography. It is for this reason that I always pop in The Black Stallion if I’m having trouble settling down for a good night’s sleep. It may work wonders for your rambunctious young ones when they’re in need of being calmed.

Check the WRL catalog for The Black Stallion DVD.

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My family discovered this story a few years ago during a road-trip stop at a popular restaurant and gift shop franchise where you can actually rent audiobooks on CD then return them at another location anywhere in the country. It delighted us that this alternative take, or prequel, on the lost boys, Peter Pan, pirates, magic, plus mermaids and a jealous fairy was equally appealing to the males and females, young and old, riding in our car. No one wanted to miss a single word as our car rolled along and it really helped pass the time!  We even couldn’t wait to get up the next morning from our hotel beds to hit the road and continue listening!

My kids have since taken up the reading of the complete series of five tales that concluded publication in 2011. This first audiobook is nine hours long.  I’d say this is the best road-trip audiobook ever and have recommended it to a lot of grandparents and parents seeking something to please whole carloads.

The book has boundless high-seas adventure, a mystery, and a heroic quest complete with a strong teen female character named Molly plus plenty of swashbuckling danger. Readers will learn the origin of the stardust that enables Peter and his friends to fly, and we get to know characters who feature in the timeless J.M. Barrie story Peter and Wendy. Humorist and novelist Dave Barry is a great storyteller and has ensured that the laughter almost never stops; Ridley Pearson’s skill with fantasy and fast-paced suspense is as adept in this young adult title as in his many books for adults.

Look for Peter and the Starcatchers in print or audiobook in the WRL catalog.

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I typically choose beach reads in the fall or wintertime.  As temperatures drop below 50°F, cover images with hammocks and cerulean blue seas become irresistible and I pick them up for escape purposes, to tide me over until I can reach a beach in a warmer clime. It’s like a chocolate indulgence or an extravagant café selection — a little me-time fantasy.  Ocean Beach fit the bill this time.

The author’s work caught my eye months ago when this sequel to Ten Beach Road came out so I’ve had it on my to-read list ever since (and enjoyed Ocean Beach without having read the first book in the Beach series).  Since then, I’ve learned that Wax was once honored with the Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion Award for her debut romance 7 Days and 7 Nights in 2003. Now I’ve just learned that Wendy Wax has joined the Downton Abbey craze — using her fandom as the source of inspiration for her latest novel, While We Were Watching Downton Abbey

The scenario of Ocean Beach made me recall the 80′s television sitcom Designing Women.  A group of women friends, assembled in Wax’s typical ensemble-cast style, are collaborating on the renovation of an historic Art Deco home in the dreamy vicinity of Miami’s South Beach.  This project shows the promise of promoting the future success of their fledgling enterprise owing to the fact that their remodeling project is to be featured on a reality television show called Do Over.  However, they had not anticipated that such notoriety might stem from a camera focused much more on their private lives than their skills with refinishing and refurbishing old houses so they are soon wishing their dirty laundry wasn’t about to be broadcast for all to see.

Ocean Beach readers will find a little romance, troubling pasts and deeply hidden secrets, a bit of amateur detective work, and more than a few strained domestic relationships in this lively, dramatic novel. Fans of chick lit and romance are sure to enjoy turning its pages, preferably while relaxing on a sun-kissed beach.

Check the WRL catalog for Ocean Beach

If you’re interested in starting with Wendy Wax’s earlier books, try The Accidental Bestseller.

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Subtitled “A portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files,” you must at least read the extremely interesting Introduction to this treasure mine sampled from what remains in the archives of America Eats, five dusty boxes of manuscript copy on onionskin.  Here Kurlansky showcases the best of what he uncovered, just as writer Merle Colby had hoped when writing the final report before the unedited, unpublished manuscripts were tucked away in the 1940s: “Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble on some of this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”

The entries are informative and amusing excerpts from food writing and recipes gathered regionally for a federally funded writing project that employed out-of-work writers.  When spending priorities changed after Pearl Harbor, the unfinished project materials were abruptly preserved in the Library of Congress, and we can thank Kurlansky for digging out its most fascinating gems for our enlightenment.

Among the southern and eastern sections where I focused my perusal, I really got a kick out of the anecdotes and details on preparing such delicacies as squirrel, [o]possum, chittelins, and corn pone, how the hush puppy got its name & why some forms of cornbread were once much lower in status.  Of course, Virginians will find some definitive yet highly opinionated historical notes on the famed Brunswick Stew.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government agency that sprung up as one of  many efforts to alleviate poverty in 1930s America.   Some WPA projects designed programs according to individual skill, field of study or expertise. Remarkably, these included plans for the fields of art, music, drama, and literature. The Federal Writers’ Project commissioned writers to research, write, edit, and publish works and series on particular topics, usually with American themes or interests in mind; writers employed included Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Following the successful production of numerous travel guidebooks, the concept for America Eats provided a means for capturing the distinct regional and cultural uniqueness of food and how it was prepared, served, and eaten in an America on the cusp of immense change. America’s culinary differences were destined to be homogenized through the diverse means that food production would soon become so heavily industrialized and globalized.

If you’re one of the many readers eagerly devouring information on real food, whole foods, traditional foods, or even paleolithic foods, in what seems like a mass revolution against modern food (in which I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my lifestyle), you’ll find much to inform and inspire you in Kurlansky’s book.  Some will reminisce; others will find a lot of eye-opening and useful knowledge about the way we once were; all we be entertained.

Check the WRL catalog for The Food of a Younger Land

I read the title in the e-book version.

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Approximately five years ago, I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well as her other five novels after receiving an all-in-one collection as a gift. Having only truly read Pride and Prejudice once (I can’t count the Cliff Notes I used in high school), it’s a wonder that I am reviewing this festive micro-history which delightfully illustrates why Jane Austen’s perfect Regency romance has remained so untouchable since its publication in 1813, even as her style and subject matter are profusely imitated, now more than ever!  

Reading Susannah Fullerton’s pleasant homage to the timeless novel upon its 200-year anniversary provided me with all sorts of intriguing details, historical background, and gossipy tidbits about its creation and legacy that enhance my appreciation of the novel.  Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, effectively demonstrates the reasons for the novel’s perfection and its ever-increasing appeal for readers of either sex, of all ages, in nearly every community worldwide. She cheerfully describes her analysis of individual characters, Austen’s style, and the famous opening sentence on which an entire chapter is devoted.

It was especially amusing to learn of all the various editions, versions, translations, sequels, retellings, mash-ups, adaptations, film interpretations, and other assorted Austen-inspired endeavors that have fueled a sort of Pride-and-Prejudice mania. Darcy-mania culture took off on the tails of the sexy 1995 BBC film version, starring Colin Firth (of the infamous lake scene), and kindled much new interest in the reading of the novel.

Fullerton pretty much concludes that no sequel author or film producer has ever really matched Jane Austen’s masterful style and that what lovers of the novel should really ever do is just keep reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. I agree that the masterpiece stands alone, but Austen did very effectively infect most of her readers with a desire to continue knowing Elizabeth and Darcy and to learn ever more about each well-drawn character’s future. Imagine if she’d lived long enough to write her own sequels, or to taste the fame her novels eventually gave her!

Check the WRL catalog for Celebrating Pride and Prejudice : 200 years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece

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