Book Reviews

It’s time to celebrate – Kansas City finally has its own Trader Joe’s. It was a long wait for many. Thousands of Kansas Citians signed petitions encouraging Trader Joe’s to locate here. Unwilling to wait, some local folks even paid others to make runs to Trader Joe’s in St. Louis.

For years devotees wondered why we were seemingly being ignored. All of that is in the past now, for we have not one but two Trader Joe’s to call our own.

Even though I have never stepped foot inside a Trader’s Joe or raised a glass of Two-Buck Chuck, I couldn’t help but to join in the countdown to July 15th.  As I listened again and again to the recitation of friends’ shopping lists, and as I overheard excited talk emanating from office cubicles about a store like no other store, I knew that something big, something really big, was about to happen to Kansas City.

Radical

Does the American dream contradict with authentic Christianity? David Platt believes so. In pursuing a comfortable life, Christians in America forget to follow the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Having a promising career, 401(k), and a nice suburban home is now more important than doing God’s work.

American churches focus on building a multi-million dollar facility and devising a fancy church program that “revolves around catering to ourselves.” The Church forsakes its first and foremost responsibilities of propagating the gospel and helping the poor near us and around the world. In his latest book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, Platt raises the following questions:

How many of us are embracing the comforts of suburban America while we turn a deaf ear to inner cities in need of the gospel? How many of us are so settled in the United States that we have never once given serious thought to the possibility that God may call us to live in another country? How often are we willing to give a check to someone else as long as we don’t have to go to the tough places in the world ourselves?

Move over, Moms! With so many tasty recipes, beautiful photos, and easy-to-follow directions, Teen Cuisine by Matthew Locricchio will inspire young adults to head for the kitchen and start cooking like they were aspiring gourmet chefs.

With a focus on organic, made-from-scratch dishes, Teen Cuisine is perfect for the teenager who is serious about learning to cook. The recipes do not rely on prepackaged or canned items thrown together for a convenient, but less than nutritious, meal. Instead, the book concentrates on creating savory meals with fresh, easy-to-find, inexpensive ingredients. 

Even better, the more than 50 flavorful dishes are broken down into small, easy steps with comfort-food favorites like Max Mac and Cheese and Chicken Pot Pie along with pizza recipes from three different regions of the United States. Teen Cuisine’s menu also includes delicious breakfast, snack, soup, salad, sandwich, side dish and dessert offerings. And for the more inexperienced teen cooks, there are also sections about kitchen safety and essentials, culinary equipment and utensils, and “chef tips” on many pages.

Anthology of Rap

What do hip-hop artists Common and Chuck D share with two English professors at Yale? They’ve all worked together to compile The Anthology of Rap, the first major publication celebrating the growth of hip-hop from a burgeoning underground music in the South Bronx to an influential, billion-dollar music industry traversing languages and cultures across the globe.

As Matt Labash of the Wall Street Journal points out in his review of the Anthology: for most people, five living rappers are easily more nameable than five living poets. Hip-hop’s larger-than-life MCs have become the poets of popular culture and modern life, influencing an entire generation of young people’s tastes in music, fashion, and culture.

Fire

This heat wave is no joke. The National Weather Service has placed KC under an excessive-heat warning through this weekend, and the city is encouraging area residents to take solace in cooling centers, such as public libraries. All this begs the eternal (and infernal) question, What to read?

Here are 10 books, both fiction and non-, that we found especially appropriate for these sweltering summer climes.

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford – Can’t stand the heat? Visit Buford’s kitchen.

Into the Inferno by Earl Emerson – Seattle firefighter investigates a mysterious illness that has decimated his department.

California Fire & Life by Don Winslow – Claims adjuster investigates a series of arsons.

Robber Bride

It’s easy to appreciate fiction’s dedicated heroines. Who doesn’t admire Jane Eyre or Miss Jane Pittman?  Neither is it difficult to muster animosity for callous villainesses such as Lady Macbeth or Madame DeFarge.

But what about those characters who straddle the line by stirring up feelings of love, hate and everything in between?

We know we shouldn’t ape their actions, but we admire their chutzpah. Their battle cries are a mixture of “All be damned” and “So be it” — an intoxicating blend of challenge and acceptance, whether they’re Carrie Bradshaw in pursuit of the perfect pair of shoes or Medea in pursuit of the perfect revenge.

It’s not the ramifications of their actions we admire – no one could endorse spending the whole paycheck on Ferragamos or Medea’s concept of sole custody. It’s the dedication to a vision these women see as an integral part of themselves, no matter how ill-advised. And they manage to make us love them for it, even as we disapprove.

It can happen at any age and any time. It’s the engulfing panic that maybe you chose the wrong career. Maybe you committed to the wrong person. Maybe you made all the wrong decisions. Maybe you’re living the wrong life.

For any woman who has wondered “what if” during her life, here are stories of other women who wondered, who dared, who tapped unknown reservoirs of strength and discovered the right person was actually living the right life all along.

Drinking the Rain, Alix Kates Shulman

For Alix Kates Shulman, it happened in the early Eighties. She felt herself slipping away in this unfamiliar world. Drinking the Rain is her enticing memoir of self-rediscovery during a summer spent on a remote Maine island. Schulman revels in her newfound independence as she collects rain water to drink, gathers mussels from a tide pool for dinner, and watches the ocean tides. Her solitary summer reveals numerous mini-miracles of life.

The Pull of the Moon, Elizabeth Berg

Thomas is unsure about several things. He can’t remember where he is from, how old he is, or how he wound up in this place called “The Glade.” All he knows is that he is looking for answers, and all of the boys around him seem very unwilling to answer his questions. Where are they? Who put them here? And what are these vicious creatures known as “Grievers?”

Thomas arrives at the Glade in an elevator-like shaft with no memory, just like all of the other boys there his age. The boys in this isolated homestead are all in their early and mid-teen years, although no one is sure of their exact age. They raise the animals and crops for their food, they all have assigned jobs, and they live inside a huge and winding Maze.

So begins The Maze Runner, book one of a young adult dystopian sci-fi trilogy by James Dashner.

Andersonville Diary

For July, I thought something quintessentially American was called for, and as this is the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War, John Ransom’s diary of his 14 months as a P.O.W. in the Confederate prison system seemed a natural choice. 

Ransom was born in 1843, and joined the Union army in 1862.  He held the rank of sergeant and was the Quartermaster for Company A of the 9th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry. He was captured in Tennessee in 1863 and, after spending some time at Belle Isle prison in Virginia was sent to what is perhaps the most infamous prison camp in that brutal war – Andersonville in Georgia. 

Ironically, Ransom “flanked out” (i.e. he jumped the line) to get out of Belle Isle, where he was first imprisoned, figuring any other place had to be better – was he ever wrong.  In his first year at Andersonville, he writes, the combination of lack of food, poor conditions and a brutal administration result in the death of about half the prisoners at the camp. 

For example, one of the “dead lines” that prisoners are not supposed to get near is along the only source of fresh water in the camp, with the result that prisoners suffering extreme dehydration risk reaching beyond the line to get some fresh water, and are shot for their troubles.

Last winter I experienced Disney World’s animated production It’s Tough to Be a Bug. I use the word experienced because no senses were left untouched. Wow, what imagination went into this nine-minute piece of entertainment! I walked out of the theater with all kinds of questions about creativity.

Is a person born with creativity? Can it be developed? Does artistic expression come easily to some? Why do some companies find awesome solutions while others primarily service the status quo? Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries, provides insight into some of these questions.

Business writer Peter Sims has corralled some entrepreneurial behaviors and attitudes into a philosophy he refers to as “little bets.” Don’t jump to the quick conclusion though that this book is just for business people. Little Bets will give ideas that will be useful to anyone who wants or needs to come up with new ideas or new ways of doing something – which means everyone.

What happens when people fall through the cracks? The dispossessed, the crazy street people, the runaways – they have to be running somewhere. In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, we follow just such a person into just such a place

Richard Mayhew is the sort of character we can all relate to. He’s a securities trader, but he’s the kind who forgets to make reservations for important dinners and inadvertently collects troll dolls (people just kept giving them to him). He’s a bit of a bumbler. He has a beautiful, powerful fiancée, Jessica, but you really get the sense that she picked him to make herself look better.

Richard Mayhew is, when it comes down to it, a doofus who has lucked into what is supposed to be a perfect life. When Richard stops to help a bleeding, unconscious girl who falls onto the sidewalk in front of him, he finds that life suddenly gone.

He becomes essentially invisible – no one recognizes him, his apartment is given to someone else, and even the ATM won’t accept his card. He decides to find the girl, named Door, certain that she holds the key to getting his old life back. He follows her to London Below; the shadowy underworld made up of the basements, caverns, steam tunnels, and abandoned underground stations beneath the city. He joins her on her search for the persons responsible for murdering her family and attempting to murder her, hoping that he can somehow, someway, return to the London he knows.

For seven years Michael Elder begged his parents, Rich and Janet, for a dog. Their answer was always a predictable no. Then Janet received a surprise breast cancer diagnosis. It was a moment that changed her life forever and also her mind about having a family dog.

For Dorritt Kilbride, her mother, and her younger sister Jewell, a comfortable and affluent life in New Orleans high society is about to come to an end when a deceitful, irresponsible stepfather forces them to relocate to the untamed Spanish colony of Texas.

The Desires of Her Heart by Lyn Cote is the first novel in the Texas: Star of Destiny trilogy. This inspirational historical romance depicts the life of an independent, beautiful heroine as she and her family leave New Orleans and travel across the Sabine River into Nacogdoches in an attempt to settle in Austin, Texas. The family’s hope is to obtain free land under Moses and Stephen Austin’s agreement with the Spanish Crown to bring 300 Anglo-American families into Texas.

But Dorritt isn’t too keen on the idea going in. “I know we were close to ruin, but Texas? Why Texas?” she pleads with her stepfather, who has squandered the family’s fortune in a horse race.

Delicious recipes, family stories, and an inseparable bond between parent and child make My Father’s Daughter by Gwyneth Paltrow a touching standout from other recently-published celebrity cookbooks.

The roots for My Father’s Daughter began years ago with a giant supply of spaghetti and meatballs.  Paltrow was eighteen years old when her mother, actress Blythe Danner, was away working in New York.  Danner had kind-heartedly over-stocked the freezer with the spaghetti for Paltrow and her father, Bruce, but they were “meatballed out” and desperate to try something different – like cooking.

At the time of their drastic decision, neither Paltrow nor her father knew much about preparing meals except that they liked eating good food and tasting new dishes.  As they experimented with ingredients, they began watching the cooking channel together and learning basic things like the best way to chop an onion. Soon this determined father-daughter duo, which was already close, discovered that working together in the kitchen strengthened their parent-child bond even more.    

In this tell-all book, Italian journalist Luca Rastello presents the story of an anonymous cocaine smuggler, referred to only as the Market, who gives an account of the war on drugs from his perspective.

With anecdotes spanning the continents of Europe, North and South America, and time periods ranging from the 1970s through the early 2000s, I Am the Market: How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton, In Five Easy Lessons would easily rise to the level of a globe-trotting Robert Ludlum thriller, if it wasn’t a real-life narrative of the global cocaine enterprise.

I first picked up this book because of its brazen and risqué title, though it was probably the teasing details in the jacket cover of the smugglers’ creative, ever-evolving tactics that got me reading: the drug-sniffing dogs provided to the police by kennels run by smugglers; the coca dissolved in water, hidden in electrical cables and building cranes; and the small-scale couriers who get caught as part of the overall plan to distract from larger shipments. As the Market says, “Nothing is better hidden than that which is in full view.”

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