Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Life in France

By Julia Child

Julia McWilliams met future husband Paul Child during World War II. It was Paul's career with the government that brought the two of them to Paris, France. Once she was exposed to the delights of French cuisine, Julia became determined to learn to prepare food like the French do. To that end, she entered the cooking school, Cordon Bleu. Learning the French way inspired her. She wanted to know all she could about it. In the process, she decided she would like to teach and share what she had learned with her fellow Americans. This eventually resulted in her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, intended for American cooks, using American ingredients and American equipment. This took years of painstaking research, trying recipes and adjusting ingredients, discovering appropriate substitutes for French ingredients not available commonly in America. But it was work she hugely enjoyed, helped by Paul's love of photography and wine and by two French women who also wanted to share their knowledge with the world.
This book was created from the letters she and Paul wrote throughout the years. In it, her great love of fine food, fine drink and good company come through very clearly. She had a tremendous appetite for food and life and all good things and a great desire to share it all with the rest of us.

I did enjoy the book, although I can't relate to her obsession with French cuisine. France has given the world wonderful, delicious foods but they do eat some odd things.
I do wish, though, that the many French words and phrases in the book came with a translation. An oversight on the part of the publisher, I suppose. But most annoying to assume that the reader understands or is willing to translate on their own.
For another review, see

Orange Is the New Black

By Piper Kerman

When Piper was a young woman, she fell in with a bad group of people. It lead to her becoming a smuggler and money launderer for a drug lord. This episode in her life was fairly brief and she left that all behind and settled down into a regular job and life. But all that was put into jeopardy when she was served with a warrant and subsequently convicted for her past bad deeds.
She avoided prison for many years but eventually was incarcerated at the federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut.
Piper was one of the lucky ones at Danbury. She had a strong support system consisting of a loving and faithful fiance, her parents, friends, family and coworkers, and plenty of money, unlike many of her fellow inmates. In Danbury, Piper is exposed to a strata of society unlike any she has previously experienced. The women of the prison range from smart, savvy women like herself to the poorest, loneliest and most deprived people Piper has ever seen. Since Danbury is a low security prison, the residents are not violent nor particularly dangerous. In fact, most of Piper's problems with people at the prison are the guards and other officers and officials, not the inmates. Some of the guards have let their power over these women go their heads and turned them into petty and overbearing bullies. The higher up the prison ladder you go, the less the people who are in charge seem to care about their jobs or about their charges, the prisoners.
But as bad as life at Danbury seems to Piper, she finds out it is greatly superior to many other prison facilities when she is taken out of there and shipped off the Chicago to testify in the trial of one of her fellow gang members. That period of her incarceration is the most difficult of all her time in prison.

I, for the most part, liked this book. It got kind of slow and draggy towards the middle but picked up quite a bit later on. It is an informative look at life in a low security prison and at how the prison system works in the USA. Reading all that she went through would make anyone think twice before running afoul of the criminal justice system. She also points out the many ways the prison system is failing society in its treatment of those in its care. And not only the prison system, but society itself, in its dealing with poverty, education and use of illegal drugs. But in the end, Piper only has herself to blame for her stint behind bars. She spends much of the story angry at the woman who turned her in. I think she comes to understand that the only person who is responsible for her predicament is Piper.

Fourth Horseman

By Margot Dalton

Police dectective Jackie Kaminsky is expecting her first child and has decided she wants to live in her own house.  She finds a nice house in a well-established neighborhood and moves in. The father of her soon-to-be-born baby, rancher Paul Arnussen, is quite willing and happy to marry Jackie, but she is leery of commitment due to her own unhappy and troubled childhood.
Jackie and Paul are digging in the yard one day, preparing the ground for a flowerbed, when Paul unearths human remains, which later turn out to be that of a young woman and a baby. Jackie also finds a diary hidden in her house that belonged to the murdered woman. So even though Jackie now has a newborn baby to take care of and is on maternity leave from her police job, she starts an informal investigation to attempt to understand how a young woman and a baby ended buried in her own backyard.
You would think taking care of herself, her new baby, and her new house would be enough for a young, inexperienced mother, but not Jackie. And despite death threats that include the severed finger of the long dead baby, Jackie refuses to stop her investigation or relocate to the safer environs of Paul's ranch.  Her investigation turns up a lot of strange behavior among her many elderly neighbors and the conclusion of the mystery was very unexpected, involving the least likely of suspects and the most sordid and sorry of circumstances.
I enjoyed this story very much. I was surprised by the conclusion and didn't have a clue beforehand as to who the murder was. However, I did find the main character's willful stubbornness and lack of common sense as regards her own and her baby's safety unlikely and unreasonable. So, of course, she ends up in a confrontation with the killer that nearly costs the both of them their lives. Also, I thought finding the dead woman's diary was a bit too pat. Made the investigation too easy. But, overall, it was a good read, engrossing and surprising.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The Magician's Land

By Lev Grossman

The third book in the trilogy finds Quentin once more on the outs. He had settled into his new position as a teacher at Brakebills and discovered his particular talent is the repair of small objects. Of course, this state of grace does not last for long. Quentin and a senior student, Plum, run afoul of Brakebill's new ghost (which turns out to be Alice, ex-human and now angry spirit being called a niffin) which results in Plum being expelled and Quentin being fired.
Plum and Quentin, at a loss for what to do with themselves after Brakebills, both end up as part of a crew hired to steal an old suitcase, a suitcase that turns out to have belonged to one of the Chatwins. It also turns out the Plum's grandfather was a Chatwin and Plum is the only one who can open the suitcase.
The suitcase caper goes awry, with Quentin's gang having to fight off not only the owners of the suitcase but a rival gang who also want it and the people who hired Quentin'g group turning out to be backstabbing liars. But Quentin's group ends up with the spoils and Quentin and Plum gain possession of her grandfather's tell-all memoir and of a powerful, world-building spell hidden in the memoir.
The memoir tells the story of Martin and of his turn to the dark side, with the help of one of the two gods of Fillory, the ram Umber. Umber is a bit of a joker and will do anything for a laugh, including taking Martin's humanity and letting him stay in Fillory.
Meanwhile, back in Fillory, the four human rulers are dismayed to discover that, once again, Fillory is in deadly peril. In fact, it is the End Times for Fillory and Eliot returns to Earth to get Quentin's help in keeping that from happening. He arrives just in time to witness the return of Alice from niffinhood, for which she is entirely ungrateful. She liked being a niffin and is very angry at everyone because she is now human again. She only begins to come around when Quentin seduces her with some of her favorite foods. Quentin, Alice, Plum and Eliot then return to Fillory to try and stop the Apocalypse.

Once again, Quentin is giving his all to save Fillory. It's a good story, very engaging and interesting, ties up all the lose ends nicely. But I still don't care about Fillory. I never became invested in what happens on or to Fillory. I never connected with any of the minor characters of Fillory, Ember, Umber, Benedict, the bodyguard,  and so on, they are just background to the story of Quentin. Actually, the only Fillory character  that I cared about was Benedict and he is quickly killed off in the second book. Fillory was Quentin's fantasy, not mine.

New York Times review of the book: