Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book #36: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

I got David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives after reading a profile on the author in the New Yorker a few weeks back. Eagleman is a neuroscientist, see, and so he regularly looks into how the brain perceives different things. I was particularly drawn to his look at how time and the brain are related, but I was rather intrigued by his book of forty short pieces that explore possibilities for the afterlife, too. So I got the book from the library.

Each of the forty tales about what the afterlife could be like is no more than a few pages. The result is a slim volume of a book, but don't be deceived by that size--there is so, so much to think about in this lovely bit of fiction! On the most surface level, it is quite impressive that Eagleman could come up with forty distinct possibilities for what the afterlife might be; even more so that he can give each scenario weight and viability and rules that work. Just a bit deeper is the beautiful prose that Eagleman uses to paint these various pictures of our lives after death. The language really is marvelous. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the fact that is book is so simple and as a result so philosophical. I could easily have read just one tale per day and pondered it all day long. In fact, I'm thinking I'll actually purchase a copy so that I can do just that--really focus on what these stories can bring to light about human nature, the type of world we live in, and what we believe as subscribers to a variety of belief systems. A really beautiful, thought-provoking book.

I'd suggest Sum to the scientifically-minded with a bit of a philosophical side, to the religious and/or spiritual looking for a secular vehicle for thought and discussion, and to anyone who is a fan on really simple, beautiful stories. I was so impressed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cooking in the Summer

While looking over my blog posts in the past few weeks, I realized that it's been a month and a half since I posted anything cooking related. Rest assured (because I'm sure you were worried): I am still cooking. Quite frequently, actually. The thing is, with the glorious bounty that comes from the farmers' market here in the summer, I haven't been following too many recipes. Mostly I'm cooking vegetables simply and tossing them with pasta--after all, nothing can beat the fresh taste of summer veg!

In case you are lacking your own cooking inspiration, here is a list of some of the things I've been making in my kitchen the last few weeks. Use whatever yummy fruits and veggies you can get where you are to make these things or others just as simple, and do let me know what works for you!

Zucchini Pesto Pasta: Depending upon time, shape of zucchini, and how much I feel in need of some repetitive slicing action, I slice some zucchini into strips using either a julienne peeler or my regular kitchen knife. I saute these strips in a bit of olive oil with some pepper and cayenne sprinkled over the top for extra flavor. Just when the zucchini looks perfectly cooked--a bit caramelized, tending toward translucent, but not falling apart--I add in some pesto. I toss the whole thing with whole grain linguine, grate a bit of cheese on top, and dive in.

Roasted Tomato Pasta: I slice cherry and/or grape tomatoes in half (either red or yellow work, the sweeter the better) and place them, cut side up, in a baking dish. I drizzle some olive oil over the tops, sprinkle on a bit of bread crumbs and grated cheese, add a dash of pepper, and then stick the whole dish in a 400-ish oven until the cheese is melty, the tomatoes are starting to burst, or the bits on the bottom of the dish are tending toward burning. I then gently "pop" the tomatoes to release their juices, which makes a wonderful sauce, then toss with whole grain linguine. Add a bit of grated Parm on the top and it's perfection.

Tabbouleh: After my roommate made tabbouleh with dinner one night, I decided it was a perfectly wonderful way to use fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for a cool dish on a hot day. I sprinkle some crumbled feta on top when serving, and you can also add in some cooked chicken to add protein and make the tabbouleh the main dish and not just a salad. Delicious.

I guess I've been eating rather repetitive dishes in the last few weeks. When the ingredients are so perfectly in season and delicious, though, I don't mind a bit.

Book #35: Shades of Grey

It's no secret that I'm quite a Jasper Fforde fan. I read the Thursday Next series almost obsessively, devoured the Nursery Crime books while abroad last summer, and even special ordered his newest book, a children's book called The Last Dragonslayer, from the UK when it wasn't released in the US last fall. For some reason, though, I just couldn't get into Shades of Grey when I got it from the library last summer (that may be in part due to the fact that I brought in on a vacation that also included five children under age 10).

I just drove a triangular route for visits and interviews this past weekend, though, and as my total trip was going to take something around fifteen hours by the time all was said and done, I decided I'd listen to an audiobook. Cue Shades of Grey--all of Jasper Fforde's creativity and skill combined with John Lee's vocal talents. I thoroughly enjoyed the story now that I was able to actually focus my attention upon it. It's the tale of young Eddie Russett, a red living in a world dictated by a person's ability to see color. Purples are at the top of the spectrum of society, followed by blues, greens, yellows, oranges, reds, and greys. Eddie finds himself in East Carmine, sent to perform a chair census in an effort to gain humility, but things are much stranger in this fringe town than he would have expected. It's a dystopian type of novel, albeit with a totally unique, extremely intricate universe unlike anything I'd yet encountered in reading.

I don't know that I can do any justice in describing the actual plot to you--Fforde's writing is so fantastic, his plots so intricate and hilarious that if I tried I am pretty sure I'd turn you off reading (or listening to!) the book. Suffice it to say that Shades of Grey is chock full of all the amusing characters (both endearing and infuriating), seemingly irrelevant plot points that make total sense in the end, and quiet satire and humor that are standards of Fforde's writing. Now I am very anxiously awaiting the next book in this series. And, when I'm the sort of person who should really be reading more children's literature than anything else, that is saying something.

I'd suggest this book to readers who enjoy Fforde, are looking for something a bit more out of the ordinary in terms of dystopian fiction, and/or are looking for a captivating way to pass 13+ hours. Audiobooks count as reading, remember!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book #34: The Quest of the Warrior Sheep

I picked up The Quest of the Warrior Sheep at ALA as I was wandering the exhibits hall in search of juvenile fiction that might appeal to young, reluctant male readers. I've found a potential success in this novel, which combines humor and the more ludicrous tendencies of a young person's story.

It's a rather madcap plot going on. The main five characters are rare breeds of sheep--one raps, one is extremely superficial, one is unusually smart--who find themselves on a quest after a cell phone, thrown from a hot air balloon high overhead, lands on one of them at home in England. They take this event to mean that Lambad, the evil sheep, is threatening Aries, the supreme good sheep who lives in the North, and only with the return of this strange object can the future of all sheep be secured. (See what I mean about ludicrous tendencies?) All of the human characters are somehow involved in strangeness of their own: the men who threw the cell phone are desperate to get it back since data on it can incriminate them in a bank fraud scheme; the sheep's owners just want their sheep back, but when they go to offer a reward they find their life savings have disappeared from the bank (see above); and some other incidental characters think the falling cell phone may have actually been an UFO, and these sheep are now someone being commanded by alien beings. All the humans end up chasing the sheep on their quest, and a good many other strange, improbable, and goofy things happen along the way.

I think this book could do well for engaging young, reluctant male readers. It has enough zaniness to capture their attention and get them invested in the characters, yet it is episodic enough that they won't feel coerced into reading huge chunks at a time if they don't want. I'd suggest this title to just that sort of audience: young reluctant readers and those with an enjoyment for the odd and goofy.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Book #33: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck is the forthcoming prose/illustrated story masterpiece from Brian Selznick, author/illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret fame. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy at the ALA Annual Conference a week ago (oh, my, the exhibits hall!), and it was the first of the stack of books I brought home from there than I read.

Wonderstruck is a story set around two main characters in two different settings: Ben, a young orphaned boy living in 1970s Minnesota, has his story told through prose; and Rose, a young deaf girl living in 1920s New Jersey has her story told through pictures. Despite the distance between the two main characters both geographical and chronologically, their stories merge together in a very Selznick fashion. I loved how, as the end of the book neared, the prose and pictures interacted so beautifully. A lot of people think this words-and-illustrations storytelling technique odd, but Selznick is truly a master of it.

I'd suggest this book to anyone who enjoys Selznick's work, to readers interested in stories told in varied modes, and to anyone with a love for that spark of wonder so treasured in childhood.