Soviet Russian cooking may conjure up images of boiled cabbage and overcooked potatoes, but Anya von Bremzen’s fascinating food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing reveals a much more rich and flavorful history as it pertains to Soviet-era dishes. As von Bremzen, a food writer, muses in the prologue: “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” Following this sentiment, von Bremzen travels between past and present as she and her mother cook and recreate both the supreme and humble food concoctions relational to their homeland’s state of being. There’s the pre-Bolshevik Revolution richness where dishes boast complex flavors and labor-intensive preparation, the uniformity of Lenin’s new Soviet model when blandness and simplicity prevailed, the starvation years of the Stalin- and World War II-eras which lay bare the “recipes” created solely for survival, and the “Thaw” of the 1950s and 1960s when food began to reappear but scarcity still ruled. In the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Putin on the Ritz,” the author sees through a 21st century lens the Moscow life of her childhood in all its small pleasures and shortcomings.
Von Bremzen and her mother Larissa emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, but not before Anya had a chance to experience both the deprivations and the decadence of Soviet food distribution, depending on one’s connections and/or status as nomenklatura (Communist party appointees). Von Bremzen’s writing is at times dense yet always saturated with flavorful layers, much like the kulebiaka, or fish pie, which dominates much of the first chapter with tales of its preparation. At the end are recipes for some of the dishes discussed, one from each decade, so readers can experience firsthand a taste of history. Russophiles and foodies alike shouldn’t miss this hidden gem which shows how a country’s complex history and its food are intricately connected, and as a result become equally important to its cultural identity.
Sadness frequently visited Kamala, but seldom was there time to succumb to its undertow. Like the monsoon that wiped out her Bengali village and claimed her family, Kamala's turbulent life was an unpredictable force leading her to reinvent herself over and over. In Sujata Massey's eloquent new historical novel The Sleeping Dictionary, India's struggles to free itself from British imperial rule coalesce with one woman's efforts to become independent even as racial and class barriers stand in the way.
Kamala was not always her name. As a child she was called Pom, born into the lowest caste in India. After a wave destroys her village, the 10-year-old orphan is rescued, embarking on what seems like a lifetime of difficult transitions. Christened Sarah, she is now content as a servant at an all-girls boarding school, where she has her dear friend, Bidushi, and her love of language and books. When she is accused of a theft she did not commit she flees, only to disembark in the wrong city, where a degrading experience awaits. By the time she arrives in Calcutta in search of a reputable position and new identity, she is hiding many secrets from her employer, a kindly British Indian civil service officer who only knows her as Kamala, well-born and well-read.
Massey, whose father was born in Calcutta, calls upon lovely descriptive language and a strong sense of place to evoke the troubled peasant life and colonial society of the 1930s and 1940s Raj India that is the center of Kamala's bumpy journey. With astute social commentary of women's roles and layers of Indian history, culture and language, she creates an authentic voice in Kamala that is as complex as the identities she has assumed. Betrayal, love, espionage and tragedy all find their way into Massey's story. The former Baltimore Sun reporter, best known for her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, has more in store for readers with her new Daughters of Bengal series. Here's looking forward to the next one.
From the start, American audiences fell in love with Downton Abbey. The opening notes of the theme song strike a familiar chord and the characters seem like people who we really know. The popular show’s fourth season premieres in the U.S. on January 5th on PBS. Following the tragic conclusion to season three, fans are curious as to the fates of the show’s beloved characters. Two new books will whet Downtonites’ appetites as they watch the drama unfold.
In Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, Fiona, the Eighth Countess of Carnarvon shares another chapter in the story of the family that lived in Highclere Castle – the real Downton Abbey. American-born Catherine Wendell married Lord Porchester, known as Porchey, in 1922. Soon, he inherited his father’s title, Highclere Castle and the debt that came with it. The couple was forced to auction family heirlooms to raise the funds to keep the castle in the family. While successful, the couple eventually divorced. Countess Fiona shares their stories complete with enough scandal, intrigue and drama to warrant a BBC production. The book also highlights the interesting role that Highclere Castle played during World War II, at times making the house a character in this family’s story. This is a fascinating look at the period and place that frame the show.
Emma Rowley’s Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey: The Official Backstage Pass to the Set, the Actors and the Drama is a new guide to the show with glossy, never-before-seen photographs. Fans will enjoy photographs of the actors, Highclere Castle, the studio set and the show’s sumptuous costumes. The book also includes interviews with the cast, crew and show’s creative team. Throughout this magnificent companion book, the show’s dedication to historical detail is evident. The cast calls historical advisor Alastair Bruce “The Oracle,” and he takes his job seriously. He meticulously studies the historical detail in every element of a scene, from the props, hair and make-up to the actors’ body language. This video is a lighthearted look at the effort that goes into the show’s historical accuracy.
Never hesitant to state his strong opinion and create controversy, Morrissey has been a lightning rod since he burst onto the scene as The Smiths’ frontman in the 1980s. Now, with Autobiography, he sets his record straight on the many phases of his life and recording career. Whether or not you find him a hopelessly depressing poseur or are a longtime fan and follower (there really is little middle ground!), this stream-of-consciousness memoir will be of interest to most anyone who listened to the music of the era.
Starting with his Manchester childhood and school days, the singer outlines his life through memories that are by turns gauzy and pointed. He shows a surprisingly tight relationship with his family, and includes the tragic deaths of relatives and friends, many of which have seemingly affected his songwriting and have haunted him to this day. Much of the book, naturally, focuses on the many people who Morrissey feels have wronged him. The much-heralded rift between him and his Smiths writing partner Johnny Marr is fairly minor compared to the vitriol Morrissey retains for Mike Joyce, former Smiths drummer, and the British judge that ruled in Joyce’s favor when it came to recording royalties. The usual suspects such as the English music press, the monarchy, Margaret Thatcher, radio DJs, etc. are also the recipients of his bitterness.
While there are no chapters or other breaks in his memoir, it reads quickly. Regarding his personal life, he doesn’t directly address his ambiguous sexuality, and the encounters he has with various celebrities are more interesting than mere name-dropping. He places a focus on the constant touring and the fans more than on his songwriting and records produced. By turns heartbreaking, intriguing, frustrating and peppered with Morrissey’s well-known wit, there is no doubt that Autobiography is a product solely his own – no ghostwriters here.
The year 1939 is known as the golden year in Hollywood. Some of the best-known movies in history were introduced to audiences. Gone with the Wind , The Wizard of Oz , Dark Victory , Stagecoach and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are just a few of these notable films. As the 75th anniversary of that landmark year approaches, Mark A. Vieira’s new book Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 examines 50 of these unforgettable films. For each movie, Vieira includes a plot summary, notes on the cultural significance of the film, stories from the stars, behind-the-scenes candid photographs and publicity stills. This is a book that film buffs won’t want to miss.
Judy Garland’s portrayal of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz holds a special place in fans’ hearts. She took us all along with her on her adventure down the Yellow Brick Road, and many of us remember eagerly awaiting the movie’s annual television broadcast. Jay Scarfone and William Stillman’s The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion will remind fans of the magic that the movie created. This highly pictorial, oversized book brings the behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s series. Scarfone and Stillman try to bring fans new facts, photos and quotes in this comprehensive commemorative book. Filled with test photographs of the cast and filmmaking secrets, this is a must-read for every Dorothy fan.
Many of the films from Hollywood’s golden year are available in BCPL’s collection.
Oprah’s newest selection for her Book Club 2.0 is Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. Kidd, who’s The Secret Life of Bees remains a perennial book club favorite, is “thrilled and honored that Oprah Winfrey chose my novel as her new book club selection." The title, due out in early January, is sure to be a favorite among book clubs with Oprah calling it “layered and gripping.”
Inspired by the life of early 19th century abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Grimk, Kidd writes in her author’s note that her aim was to write “a thickly imagined story inspired by her life.” The result is this beautifully written novel with the dual portrait of two women bound by the horrors of slavery as its centerpiece. Sarah, the daughter of a wealthy Charleston plantation owner is desperate to break free from the confines of her time. She is denied the opportunity to pursue her passion of a legal career and struggles to find outlets for her creativity, intelligence and convictions. Hetty, nicknamed “Handful,” a slave in the household, is also keenly intelligent, brave and brandish a strong rebellious streak. Told in first person, the chapters alternate between these women’s perspectives as the reader follows them and their unique relationship from childhood through middle age.
Kidd will not disappoint her legions of fans with this masterly told story of fascinating women striving for liberation and empowerment during a devastating historical time. Check out Oprah’s announcement here to find out more about this exciting literary pick.
There is a new subgenre of epic fantasy that seems to be growing called flintlock fantasy. Traditional epic fantasy has a Medieval or Renaissance type setting; technology is limited, and religion and magic dominate. Not so in one of the best new contenders in this subgenre, Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan. Promise of Blood is the first book in the new Powder Mage Trilogy. McClellan’s world is poised on the brink of modernity, with steam power, labor unions and massed armies using cannons and muskets. Much as the modern era was kicked off with the violence of the French Revolution and rise of Napoleon, Promise of Blood begins with a popular military commander ousting the corrupt hapless king and his unfeeling nobility. Soon the cobblestones of “Election Square” — voting being carried out by guillotine — runs red with blood as Royalists seek safety from the revolution behind barricades.
Into what otherwise sounds like a retelling of Les Misérables, McClellan adds magic, lots of varied magic. The King is supported by his Royal Cabal of Privileged, which are like the traditional wizards of epic fantasy novels. The revolution is led by the Powder Mages, less powerful than the Privileged. They gain their power from ingesting gunpowder and bullets. The Powder Mages are a reflection of the new modern era about to be born. Other groups integral to the story are Knacked, those who only possess one single ability, and the Predeii, sorcerers older and more powerful than the Privileged. Lastly, there are the old gods, who are not pleased with the Revolution, and they are not forgiving.
Promise of Blood is full of battles, magic and mundane. It is rife with court intrigue and the maneuverings of a land in revolution. It features a cross section of characters from different cultural strata. It works on every level. The only good thing about reaching the end of the book is the knowledge that book two in the series comes out in February!
How much of the information you “know” is actually misinformation in disguise? Maybe your first grade teacher simplified a few things in history class, or science hadn’t quite caught up with reality yet, or your parents were just telling you what their parents told them. All (well, some) are revealed in The De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn’t Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew by the editors of Cracked.com, a U.S.-based humor website.
With a tongue-in-cheek, often slyly humorous style, The De-Textbook takes you from the basic things we are doing wrong everyday (like breathing and sleeping) through more advanced misconceptions in biology, history and psychology, to name a few. This is definitely a book geared toward a more adult audience, as some of the more subtle jokes and innuendos may be confusing to a younger audience, and that's not counting an entire chapter on sex education. Each section is filled with short snippets of information that are hilariously presented accompanied by numerous pictures and illustrations, also hilariously presented. If we had textbooks this engaging in school, maybe we all would have actually learned something.
So if you’re curious (or rather, suspicious) about whether ostriches really hide their heads in the sand, or whether the Dark Ages were really all that dark, or perhaps you're wondering how many planets there really are in the Solar System and why scientists can’t seem to make up their minds about it, The De-Textbook is a great place to start. Trivia buffs and fans of Cracked or similar humor sites like The Oatmeal will especially enjoy this one.
Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews and Walt Disney: for most of us, the three are linked together with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, tea parties on the ceiling and Jane and Michael Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The name P.L. Travers, however, is recognizable by only the most diehard of Poppins fans, as she is the author of the Mary Poppins children’s book series, as well as the subject of the biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson.
P.L. Travers was born in Australia and christened Helen Lyndon Goff; she later adopted Pamela Lyndon Travers as a pseudonym. Travers valued her privacy, and felt protective of the Mary Poppins characters and stories. Lawson explains that each contained elements of Travers’ own rather peripatetic and often difficult life. Initially, Walt Disney encountered resistance from Travers when he approached her about adapting her Poppins books to a film version. The “real” nanny is sharp-tongued, mysterious, controlling and a bit vain. Travers felt Disney would “replace truth with false sentimentality” and called Disney’s movie-making “vulgar.” In the end, Disney’s coffers trumped Travers’ misgivings, and the Julie Andrews version of Mary triumphed on the silver screen.
Expect to hear more about P.L. Travers after the December release of the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which follows Disney as he woos Travers for the film rights to the now-classic movie Mary Poppins.
Allie Brosh has been publishing her stick figure drawings on her blog Hyperbole and a Half since July 2009. Her sense of humor and quirky drawings made the blog incredibly popular. Now Brosh has taken the blog a step further, publishing her first book filled with her familiar simple, but hilarious drawings. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened contains a mix of classic stories from the blog and brand new ones.
Longtime Hyperbole and a Half readers will enjoy revisiting favorite pieces like “The God of Cake,” a story from Brosh’s childhood in which she became obsessed with her grandfather’s birthday cake, and did everything she could to devour the entire thing. While new stories like “Lost in the Woods,” a tale in which Brosh, her mother and younger sister end up lost in the woods for hours after her mother decides that the girls need to learn about nature, will make readers — new and old alike — laugh out loud. Readers will also enjoy brand new pieces about Brosh’s comical dogs — the simple dog and the helper dog. Hyperbole and a Half does take a turn for the serious with Brosh’s two-part piece on her experiences with depression. Both parts are refreshingly honest, but not without her unique brand of humor.
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened is a hilarious collection of stories and drawings. Brosh’s storytelling ability combined with her comic drawings make for a fun and insightful book.