From Scratch

Inside the Food Network
by Allen Salkin
First sentence: “Before there was a Food Network, there was no Food Network, or even a world in which it was obvious that there ought to be a Food Network.”
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Content: It’s a non-fiction book, so there’s that. And people don’t always talk nicely, and Salkin didn’t do anything to prettify it, so there’s a lot of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in our film/TV section of the bookstore.

I picked this up because I have watched Food Network in the past (back when I lived in Mississippi and Arkansas) and I was, well, curious to see what Salkin had to say about the behind the scenes goings-on at the network.

The thing is: this wasn’t. Not really. It was a little bit: there were stories of how Alton Brown and Rachel Ray and Paula Deen and Emeril and Bobby Flay all got their shows, but it was more the story of the network as a whole.

Which means there was an awful lot about the whole business of the network. Getting it started, ad revenue, selling it, CEO changes, programming…. all of which is behind the scenes and dishy, but none of which I was interested in.

So, in truth, I actually ended up skimming this one, looking for the “good” bits (read: the stuff I was actually interested in), and then just kind of petering out near the end. I guess I wanted more gossip. (I suppose that say something about me.)  It wasn’t a badly written book, and I think someone who is interested in the business of television, or is interested in the Food Network and doesn’t mind the business of television would actually really like this one.

That someone just wasn’t me.

Dearie

by Bob Spitz
ages: adult
First sentence: “‘Now, dearie, I will require a hot plate for my appearance on Professor Duhamel’s program.'”
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I have to admit that I didn’t grow up as a Julia Child groupie. Oh, I knew who she was, but I wasn’t that into food (I was more into sports) or cooking, and what she did didn’t interest me. My parents may have watched her French Chef show — I don’t know — but it’s not like she was an influence in my upbringing.

Then I read Julie and Julia and, later, My Life in France, and I became an unabashed Julia Child fan. So, of course, when the new biography came out (on August 15, her 100th birthday), I had to read it. (Granted, I wasn’t going to read it just yet, but a friend thrust it in my hands and said it was due back at the library in 2 weeks, so, really, what else was I going to do?)

Spitz admits, in the acknowledgements, that he is not really an unbiased reporter of Julia’s life. He met her in 1992 and developed a bit of a crush on her through their interaction. So, when the opportunity fell into his lap to write a biography of her, he, of course, jumped at the chance.

This really is a comprehensive (and by default, huge, coming in at 530 pages) biography: from her early upbringing in Pasadena, California, through her stint with the OSS (which really is much less glamorous than it seems), through her marriage to Paul Child and their years in France (which Spitz kind of glossed over, but I didn’t mind, since I’d read about that already), and through all her various incarnations in television, up through Paul’s, and her own, death.

But Spitz is an excellent writer, and his enthusiasm for Julia shows. He really delves into her life, drawing her both in broad strokes (she really WAS manic, full of energy; at one point, I pointed out to Hubby that she must have been exhausting to know), and small details (the amount of work this woman did, basically up until she died, was simply amazing; also she LOVED men. Not like affairs, or anything: she was devoted to Paul; she just loved having men around.), which gave a more thorough picture of the real person behind the persona. (By the way, she adored the Dan Ackroyd Saturday Night Live skit.) Additionally, there was enough foodiness, especially later on, to keep the foody side of me happy.

It was the combination of my admiration for Julia (I admire her more the older I get; she started a completely new career at age 50, and made it work) and Spitz’s writing that made this book such a delight to read.

A must for any Julia Child fan. 

The Books of Elsewhere: The Second Spy

by Jacqueline West
ages: 9+
First sentence: “If you believe that death is about to spring upon you at any moment, you won’t spend much time watching television.”
Others in the series: The Shadows, Spellbound
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Hm… how to do this without spoiling the other two? Well, first go read the other two! (Seriously: you won’t regret it. This is one fine middle grade series.)

Olive has managed to thwart the evil McMartins so far, a little bit by chance and luck, and a little bit through skill. However, thwarting is not the same as getting rid of. And, so Olive has been creeping around, hoping that Annabelle McMartin doesn’t kill her. That, and she’s starting sixth grade, and middle school, which is its own beast. Granted, the two — being afraid for your life and starting middle school — aren’t necessarily compatible. But, thankfully, Olive has the cats and Rutherford on her side.

Or does she??

Another fine, deliciously creepy, intriguing, fun addition to this clever series. I liked that West used trust and friendship as the backdrop for this tale, exploring this pretty traditional and mundane (though important) topic in such a unique way. But, beyond that, every book is well plotted, and wraps up nicely (my favorite thing!), while leaving room for yet another adventure with these fun characters.

And now that I’m all caught up, I have to wait for the next one to come out.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.) 

Three Times Lucky

by Shelia Turnage
ages: 9+
First sentence: “Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.

It was all just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. See, Mo (that’s short for Moses; and yes, she is a girl) LoBeau’s (emphasis on the second syllable because it classes it up) friend Dale (Earnheart Junior III) just wanted to borrow Mr. Jesse’s boat, and then decided to return it for a “finders fee.” It wasn’t Dale’s fault Mr. Jesse turned up dead.

Honest.

(It has occurred to me that I’ve read a number of middle grade books with dead people recently. Must be a trend…)

From there, of course, Mr. Jesse’s murder (It’s not grisly, at all. Promise.) turns the tiny, rural, North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing upside down. And Mo and Dale are smack dab in the middle of it. To clear Dale’s name, they set out trying to solve the mystery, and are thwarted at every turn by Detective Joe Starr, the adult who’s (really) working the case. Mo and Dale keep at it, though, because the whole case somehow seems to involve the Colonel and Miss Lana, the two people to whom Mo, an orphan, is closest.
Honestly: I’ve read my share of Southern novels, and so I figured it was just another run-of-the-mill, murder-mystery-light/Southern thing. But I couldn’t put it this book down. In addition to murder, this book has everything: drama, car racing, suspense, plucky kids, arch-enemies, robbery, unrequited love, and karate.  It’s everything Southern, but the pecan pie. (And I’m sure that would have shown up, had the book been set at Thanksgiving instead of during the summer.) There’s a little something for everyone here, which makes any book appealing.

But the real reason to fall in love with this book — as I did — is because Turnage has created a wonderful couple of characters in Mo (“My heart leaped like the cheerleader I will never be.”) and Dale (“Dale may not know much from the classroom, but his recess skills are legendary.”). In fact, all the characters, from Miss Lana (“I passed the wigs to Miss Lana, completing her Hollywood Through the Ages collection. Miss Lana has a flair for drama.”) and the Colonel (“Miss Lana says hugging the Colonel’s like hugging a turning plow.”), down to Mayor Little (“We always choose a Little for mayor in case a television crew ever comes to town. Littles like to talk and they’re naturally neat; even their babies dress good.”) and aspiring lawyer Skeeter (“Rumor has it she’s already written to Matchbook University for a paralegal course under an assumed name. She won’t say if that’s true or false, only that unsubstantiated rumor won’t hold up in court.”) pop off the page, and it’s entirely because of the way Turnage writes.

It’s also the small-town, rural Southern feel: kids biking everywhere, technology limited because coverage is spotty, rusted cars on lawns. It’s a place caught out of time, perfect for two kids to have the adventure of a summer. And perhaps to learn a little bit about themselves, and the meaning of family, in the process.

For us, it means an perfectly charming book. Period.

Reread: The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins
ages: 12+
First line: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Catching Fire, Mockingjay

I caught the Hunger Games hype early (not as early as some, but earlier than others), reading it a few months after it came out. And because I did, I mostly just linked to others’ reviews, and gave you my thoughts. I haven’t picked the book up since then (though I did read the other two), though I did go see the movie the weekend it came out with C and M.

Then, it was our choice for our mother-daughter book group, and we decided to go with this one. I couldn’t pass up the chance to read it again.

First off: it lives up to a second reading. (I was actually worried about this.)

So, if you have been living under a rock, the basic plot is this: it’s sometime in the distant future, and the US has dissolved into a country with a capitol and 13 districts. Then, at some point, the districts rebelled against the domineering capitol. Except that they were defeated — the 13th obliterated — and the other 12 were made to give one girl and one boy as “tributes” to the Hunger Games: a contest of survival, where the winner is the last one left alive.

Katniss lives in the poorest of the districts, 12, and she’s making it by. Her father was killed in a mine accident, and she’s been single-handedly keeping her family — her mother, and her younger sister, Primrose — alive. So, when at the Reaping (when they choose the tributes), Primrose’s name is called, Katniss does the only thing she can do: volunteer to go in Primrose’s place. She’s off to the 74th annual Hunger Games.

I’ve heard Katniss called a strong heroine, and after this reading, I’m not sure I agree. Don’t mistake me: she’s a survivor. She will do anything to make sure she keeps herself, and those she loves, alive. It’s her sole purpose in life. But I’m not sure she’s a strong character, someone who takes charge, who’s proactive about herself and her future. No, she’s more a reactive type, someone who deals with situations thrown at her. Which isn’t bad, but that doesn’t mean she’s strong, in the typical sense.

The second thing I thought of is that all the hype about Team Peeta and Team Gale is really quite misguided. Sure, there’s romance, but really: Katniss is too busy surviving to really pay much attention to the boy, and while we think Peeta likes her, we’re getting everything warped from Katniss’s point of view. I like those who say they’re Team Katniss, because honestly: there’s just too much going on in her world for her to spend time on a luxury as romance.

But, overall: worth the reread. It’s still a book I’d recommend to people, as a commentary on reality television, on the hoplessness of war. It’s tight, action-packed, and still unputdownable. And you can’t beat that.

Audiobook: Bossypants

by Tina Fey
Read by the author
ages: adult
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

I really don’t know why Tina Fey felt that she needed to write a memoir. Perhaps it’s because this is the last season of 30 Rock (I hope; I really can’t imagine the show without Alec Baldwin), and she wanted to try her hand at writing… something not television/movie related. That said, it’s a good book. She goes pretty much chronologically through her life: from a childhood in West Philadelphia, to college at the University of Virginia, to her time in Chicago with Second City, to her years at Saturday Night Life, to 30 Rock. In there, she fits her marriage and birth of her first child as well.

Like most comedy, it’s uneven. Some parts are horribly hilarious (like her Doomed Honeymoon), some parts she just lectures (about sexism in politics, for example) and the jokes fall flat (but perhaps they were meant to). That said, it was entertaining enough — Fey’s self-deprecating style is really pretty funny — to keep me sitting in the car listening long after I had gotten to where I was going. My favorite sections were about the development and production of 30 Rock, perhaps because I’ve been a fan of the show since it started. But, I found that’s where the biggest laughs were for me.

A note on the audiobook: on the one hand, I really enjoyed hearing Fey read her book. She did voices (her Alec Baldwin is really quite good), and we got the audio clip of her first Sarah Palin Saturday Night Live. She did mumble on occasion which bugged me until I checked the print version and realized that she was mumbling the asides. But she kept saying “check the pdf for this picture. Really. You won’t regret it.” I never did. I listen to the books in the car, and I’m not going to take the CDs out just so I can look at a picture. I did, however, check them out in the print edition. And they were, as she promised, quite hilarious.

So would I recommend the audio book for this one? Well, yes… if you’re like me and willing to check out the print edition for the extra laughs.

Catching Fire

by Suzanne Collins
ages: 12+
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (If you haven’t already!)

When Tricia at Library Queue and I realized that 1) we were both reading Catching Fire and 2) everyone else had read it so there really wasn’t much new to say about it, we decided that the best thing to do would be to team up and do a buddy review/chat of our reactions and thoughts about this sequel to The Hunger Games. Since most of you have read it, I’m not going to edit out the spoilers; just know if you’re one of the handful of people who haven’t gotten around to reading it, you might want to come back later, once you’ve finished.

So, our thoughts:

me: SO… what did you think? First impressions?

Tricia: Loved it!

me: Dawn asked if I ever got to the point where I wanted to throw it in the freezer… did you? Did it ever get too suspenseful for you?

Tricia: Nope, I decided to burn right through it.

me: Brave woman.

Tricia: I found it really hard to close it last night at 12:20am on page 260.

me: Well… yeah… so close to the end.

Tricia: What about you? Did you read it straight through?

me: I read most of it in one sitting, but had to stop (at page 253) for a few hours, but I got back to it as soon as I could. It made yoga hard: I kept thinking about the book!

Tricia: That’s funny we stopped at about the same place.

me: Yeah. 🙂 So: are you Team Peeta or Team Gale? (Why is it that we feel a need to divide everything up into teams?)

Tricia: So, going into the book, I was on Team Gale. But I think one of the things that I really felt like Collins did that Stephenie Meyer didn’t manage for me, is really really make me torn between the two.

me: That’s a good point: you really couldn’t root for one or the other, because they were both so good for Katniss.

Tricia: Yeah. I can’t discount the lifelong friend thing. My parents were lifelong friends and it totally worked for them. But, because we’ve really seen so little from Gale in the two books, I’m having a hard time justifying my team. I really love Peeta, especially after reading this book.

me: Me, too. M said, when she finished, that Peeta REALLY rocked. I agree. But Gale’s never really been given a chance. Why do you think Collins chose to do it that way? Not give us too much info about Gale other than they were lifelong friends, and he loves her, I mean?

Tricia: I’m worried about the readers not getting emotionally involved with Gale.

me: Why?

Tricia: Because I’m worried she’s going to kill him off!!

me: Yeah, I can see that. I think she might have a bigger role for him.

Tricia: OK, so you are on Team Peeta I presume?

me: He’s awesome, and Gale’s so much in the background. I thought, too, that Peeta was stronger this time around, altruistic, yes, but also smart, savvy and able to manage himself which is not something he did in Hunger Games. I think Katniss needs him more than she needs Gale.

Tricia: There was something a little pathetic about Peeta in the first book that was totally gone this book. Like he really grew up. At the moment, I totally agree. Katniss does need him. I think it will be hard for Gale to ever fully understand how much the Games has changed Katniss as a person, but Peeta will always have that for her.

me: You know, one of the things I really liked in this book was how Peeta and Katniss needed each other to sleep through the night. I also liked that they managed without sex — that their connection was something more elemental than passionate.

Tricia: Yeah. That was sort of sexy too. Kind of Twilight-ish.

me: Good comparison. Except not as creepy.

Tricia: Right. LOL. So were you surprised by what happened in the book?

me: YES, I was surprised. I was going along the book, and then I hit page 174 (tweeted it, which is why I remember the page number) and it totally threw me for a loop!

Tricia: I am surprised by how much I was surprised.

me: I am, too, especially since I knew going in that there were surprises.

Tricia: Yeah, some of it I anticipated, and other things just had me shocked. And Collins manages to do it BAM at the end of the chapter so you have to keep reading!

me: What shocked you?

Tricia: I was really hoping no one would fight after the holding hands thing.

me: Actually, one of the things that surprised me was the games itself. I thought she’d leave the games behind in this book and just go political. And she did, in a way. Well, not in a way. She did. Just not in the way I was expecting.

Tricia: Yeah, I was expecting a more traditional uprising I guess.

me: And we got some of that.

Tricia: On page 60-something, when they visit District 11, I actually cried. I don’t even remember getting that emotional when Rue died in the last book. But for some reason, it really got me when she was staring at the people’s faces and remembering it all.

me: Speaking of uprisings: President Snow was CREEPY.

Tricia: I could have nightmares about that dude.

me: Oh, MAN. Talk about a good bad guy. He made my skin crawl. And the level of intimidation that he’d stoop to — poor Cinna!

Tricia: Yeah. Love Cinna. He’s kind of a younger Nick Arrojo in my mind.

me: Yeah — how about the mockingjay dress. Totally awesome. He was one of my favorite characters from Hunger Games.

Tricia: Loved the mockingjay dress. I think Collins does a fabulous job with the minor characters. Even annoying Effie and the crying stylists. I love them all!

me: True. Actually, the only person I still really didn’t like was Katniss herself. She’s still too black-and-white, though she’s less so than in Hunger Games.

Tricia: You know, I never really thought about it that way, but I agree with you. She’s still immature. I think this book really highlighted that, especially with Peeta growing up so much.

me: Yeah. Which is probably one of the reasons she got sideswiped there in the end: she wasn’t mature enough to handle what everyone else was doing, and would have probably blown it (she nearly did anyway). Which makes me curious for the next one.

Tricia: So, usually 2nd books in a trilogy are a little rougher for me than the rest. But this one wasn’t. What do you think made this book so different from normal 2nd books?

me: I don’t know: I was thinking that about this book, too. Perhaps it’s because Collins didn’t do what we expected her to do? If you think about it, not much really happened in this book it’s still mostly foundational.

Tricia: Yeah, she seems like she’s got a really clear direction she’s headed. She’s not distracted in her writing.

me: That’s so true. She’s a very tight, very descriptive writer. I don’t feel like she’s telling us more than we need to know which is probably why it’s such an intense reading experience.

Tricia: Nor do I think she’s being influenced by her fans one bit.

me: Good. For. Her. I think being a more seasoned writer helps — she has the whole Gregor series under her belt.

Tricia: Somehow Collins makes a dystopian thriller romantic and heartbreaking and gritty. It’s explosive stuff! Do you think Collins knows exactly how it will all end?

me: Oh, yeah. But I don’t think we can even imagine what’s going to happen.

Tricia: Do you think she’s know that from the beginning?

me: I don’t know. Possibly.

Tricia: I always wonder if writers sketch out the whole trilogy from the start, or if it evolves…or both.

me: Or if she sat down and wrote it all as one long draft, and then perfected it in three chunks. I think sometimes writers just start with one book, and if it does well, make it fit into a series. But sometimes, you can tell that they’ve thought it through from the beginning!

Tricia: Yeah, I think Scholastic booked her for a trilogy from the start on this one.

me: Okay… lightening round…favorite character?

Tricia: This book: Peeta. Yours?

me: Haymitch.

Tricia: Oooh, good call. We haven’t talked about him; why did you like him? (Sorry, not lightning, but I’ve got to know!)

me: Because, like in Hunger Games, there is so much more to him than what we’re really seeing. I liked that we “saw” his games and that he knows more about getting out of the arena alive than anyone else.

Tricia: Yeah. Me too.

me: and then there’s the end… WOW!

Tricia: I’m so SO glad he was there at the end.

me: I think his drunkenness is a mask for something bigger, and Collins hinted at that in the end. Makes me wonder what he’s going to do next. He’s very complex.

Tricia: I hope he’s more sober in the next book though. 🙂

me: Back to lightning round: favorite scene? Don’t give too much away.

Tricia: Having a tough time with that one. You go first.

me: I think I liked the one with Katniss in the woods when she met the escapees from District 8. It gave us a hint of something bigger that was going on, yet managed to not give too much away. And it let us see a bit more into Katniss’s world.

me: Yeah, I agree. OK, I will probably change my mind 1/2 dozen times, but I really liked the scene when the fence goes back online and she gets hurt coming home. And how everyone at home reacts and plays dumb when the Peacekeepers are there. It was serious and funny all at the same time. And I liked the interaction between Haymitch, Peeta, and Katniss there a lot.

me: Oh, that’s a good one. Serious and funny at the same time is something that Collins does well.

me: OK, totally random, but if you HAD to live in a district, which one would you pick?

me: Besides the Capitol? 😉 District 3 or 4. I’m selfish, and I like to live in ease.

Tricia: Remind me, 4 is Finnick…the sea right?

me: Yeah. And three is electronic: Nuts and Volts (I liked them). How about you?

Tricia: I think somehow 12 gets me because my ancestors were coal miners. That, and they had relatively nice Peacekeepers and they were far away from everyone else.

me: So, even though they were poor, they were relatively untouched. Perhaps that’s why the revolution had to start with someone from 12. Hunger Games was a good criticism of popular society and reality television…but I don’t think this one was as much, do you?

Tricia: No, I felt like it was much more it’s own world this time. Any characters you don’t like? Besides Snow?

me: Thresh. I think she makes most of the people sympathetic, and leaves just a couple to be real baddies.

Tricia: I actually really don’t like Joannah, and I think that’s a good thing. How I can dislike someone who’s on the right side…that’s talented writing.

me: That’s a good point. It’s easy to like the likable people and hate the bad ones but to dislike someone who is on the “good” side… but to write someone unlikable who is on the good side. That IS good writing.

Tricia: Did you think someone was going to turn bad? I’ve been worried there’s a mole somewhere. Who saw Gale and Katniss kiss? that never got resolved.

me: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.

Tricia: I thought maybe Haymitch…at first.

me: Not Haymitch. maybe it’s someone we haven’t met?

Tricia: Right. But snow is getting his info somewhere. Prim?

me: Would it be really terrible if it were Peeta? That, actually, would be interesting. Devastating, but interesting.

Tricia: Yeah, I’m scared I’m emotionally invested in a bad guy!

me: LOL! THAT would be good writing.

Tricia: OK, which book did you like better? I think I’ll go with Hunger Games just because it was first.

me: I think I liked Catching fire better because it was less commentary on society and more a straight-up adventure.

Tricia: I don’t think we could go wrong with either, truth be told. Good stuff!

Good stuff, indeed!