Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Nevermore: Astrophysics, Everybody Lies, Carl Sagan, British, Suzy Hansen

Reported by Kristin

Nevermore began with a fascinating book: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.  The author has spent years examining what data people really share in their online searching, gaining insight into what people really think about racial, political, and personal issues.  Our reader found the book extremely informative and interesting.

Turning to scholarly non-fiction, another reader was tackling two books on the ethnic origins of the people of The Origins of the British by Stephen Oppenheimer and Saxons, Vikings, and Celts by Bryan Sykes.  Both examine the linguistics, sociology and even DNA evidence to determine historical migration patterns.  Both authors propose that the British Isles were completely de-populated by the last ice age, but humans found three sites of refuge within Europe and later branched out again.  Our reader said that sometimes the statistics quoted were way beyond her, but were still well worth reading.

Next up was Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen.  Journalist Hansen worked at a high-profile newspaper in New York, but chose to move to Istanbul, Turkey to learn more about the Islamic culture that was influencing so much of the world.  She was surprised to learn more about the United States of America and how it was often viewed as an overbearing, imperialist bully which invades other countries in the name of doing good.  Our reader learned a lot from the book and believed that everyone should live abroad at some point in order to gain a wider worldview.

Another reader completed Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson.  Written a few years after Sagan’s death, this book didn’t sugarcoat his shortcomings.  Sagan was very interested in non-terrestrial life and admitted that there are so many things that we don’t know about science.  His desire to spread scientific knowledge to the masses led to the Cosmos television series and to many books.  Our reader found it very intriguing, and said, “I read it because I wanted to think about intelligent life, somewhere.”

Still out in space, Nevermore then discussed Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Pop-culture references such as Star Trek are included, blurring the line between science and entertainment, just as both Sagan and Tyson have done while producing the television series Cosmos.  Our reader enjoyed listening to the book and found the author’s anecdotes interesting and relatable, saying that although she didn’t understand all the science, it was enough to give her a small understanding of grand concepts.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Caught Dead Handed by Carol J. Perry

Reviewed by Jeanne

Lee, aka Maralee, Barrett has just returned to her hometown of Salem to interview for a job as a television reporter.  She’s been away for several years, gone to college, married, and been widowed.  She’s at loose ends, and this seems a good way to reconnect.   Aunt Ibby, the woman who raised Lee after the deaths of her parents, still lives in Salem and would welcome Lee back home with open arms.  Unfortunately, Lee quickly discovers that the prospective job is already taken by a photogenic male reporter before she even gets an interview. She angrily leaves the station, only to find a body floating in the ocean near the station.

It’s Ariel Constellation, the psychic/horror movie hostess for the station. As the police investigate, Lee is hired to take Ariel’s place as the new hostess for “Nightshades.” She quickly discovers the station is run on a shoestring budget, with employees expected be pretty much jacks of all trades.  She also finds she’s supposed to play the part of psychic as well, answering callers’ questions during breaks in the movie.  

In addition to her job, Lee also seems to have inherited Ariel’s cat.  Orion, redubbed O’Ryan, is a chubby orange tabby who makes himself right at home with Lee and Aunt Ibby. Lee should be pleased, but she’s upset when she thinks she sees something in Ariel’s crystal ball.  Also, it appears that some people believed Ariel was a real, practicing witch. . . and they seem inclined to think that Lee is one too.  Given that Ariel was murdered, Lee may need to watch her back.

Mysteries with a touch of the supernatural have become quite the thing lately.  For me, the most important parts of almost any book are that I like the characters and that the writing is well done; the rest is just trimmings or, occasionally, a real bonus.  

Lee is a confident young woman who is also intelligent, kind, and thoughtful.  Her marriage was happy until her husband’s untimely death but while she still grieves, she’s going ahead with her life.  This is my kind of heroine.  I confess I’m a bit tired of the air-headed, needy lead characters of some series; I find myself wanting to tell them to grow up.  

I also like the way that the supernatural elements are handled.  Lee has occasional visions when she looks into dark, reflective surfaces, something she tries hard to avoid, but these little glimpses are often difficult to interpret.  While Lee finds the idea of Ariel being a genuine psychic to be highly doubtful, she treats those who do believe with respect.  She takes a crash course in Tarot for her performance and explains how fake psychics can make people believe they are getting real answers.  It’s a fine line to walk between skepticism and belief, and Perry does it very well.

Supporting characters are also well done, especially the lively Aunt Ibby and O’Ryan. Ibby is a strong, intelligent, lively woman who trusts Lee to do what she thinks best, and has a love for old movies from award winners to cult classics. She’s also a reference librarian with a good sense of humor. O’Ryan is a friendly orange cat whose behavior will seem very familiar to anyone who has had a cat, but he also may be a bit more than he seems.  While he doesn’t talk or overtly solve mysteries, he takes a great interest in Lee’s investigations and may be subtly guiding her.  Lee certainly wouldn’t think so, and readers are free to decide for themselves. A touch of romance in the form of a handsome detective rounds out the book.

One very small detail that said a lot to me is that Lee’s late husband was a NASCAR driver. That opened the door for all sorts of stereotypes, but Perry declined to walk through it.  Instead, the main take-away was that he taught Lee about driving so that she has a love of fast cars and the knowledge of how they work.  His name also gives her an “in” to talk to a possible witness.  

A strong sense of place adds to a book as far as I’m concerned, and Perry does a good job with keeping her audience grounded in Salem with clear descriptions and interesting bits of history about the town.  In addition, we are taken behind the scenes at a small TV station, where most of the staff have multiple responsibilities and nothing is particularly glamorous.  I watch my local news a little differently now.

The plot was creative and I was surprised a bit at the conclusion.  In a few instances, Lee was slow to pick up on clues but overall I found it nicely executed.  It’s the first in a series, and I will definitely be reading more.

The series in order: 
1.       Caught Dead Handed

2.      Tails, You Lose

3.      Look Both Ways

4.      Murder Go Round

5.      Grave Errors

6.      It Takes a Coven (due out in 2018)

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue by Fred Sauceman

Reviewed by Jeanne

In 1948, Grace and Jim Proffitt, a young couple with two small children and deep roots in East Tennessee decided to see if they could earn some extra money by opening a restaurant.  They’d a bit of experience in running a country store, so with two partners they opened an eatery in Bullock’s Hollow.  Named for a hotel in Dayton Beach, the Ridgewood Grill featured steak, country fried chicken, and—somewhat oddly—oysters. The venture was doing fairly well, and then they were dealt a setback:  Sullivan County went dry.  Since beer sales had been a strong source of revenue, they had to re-think their business plan.

Instead of a grill, they decided to specialize in barbecue. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like the Colonel, Ridgewood has its secret recipes.  The barbecue sauce, perfected over time by Jim Proffitt, doesn’t have a written recipe. Instead, at the proper time, a family member is chosen to memorize the ingredients; most recently, Larry Proffitt passed the barbacue recipe to his daughter, Lisa. Also cloaked in secrecy is the recipe for the blue cheese dressing, which is so good that it’s eaten from a bowl with crackers instead of being spread over salad. People purchase it by the quart to take home.  Other famous dishes are the baked beans and coleslaw.

Fred Sauceman, a food historian with a strong interest in the Appalachian region, is the perfect writer to record the history of the legendary Ridgewood.  He knows the region and the people in general, and The Ridgewood in particular. He does an excellent job of describing how the restaurant has fared through the years, being passed from Grace and Jim to their sons, and now the third generation is behind the counter.  While family members have outside jobs –ever practical, they are encouraged to choose professions suitable for making a living--but the restaurant remains a labor of love.

Sauceman discusses how the classic menu came to be, including the design of the pit for smoking the ham (never pork shoulder, which is for sausage) and the creation of the tomato based sauce. Some side dishes warrant their own discussion, coleslaw for one. The emphasis is all on fresh, quality ingredients, without shortcuts.

This attention to detail and quality has won the restaurant nationwide recognition, including a photo in People magazine with a testimonial from the Sterns (“Road Food”) and a visit to “Good Morning America.” NASCAR drivers, professional football players, TV personalities, and other celebrities have made their way to Ridgewood, but it’s the local customers who have supported the restaurant over the decades with a fierce loyalty. 

The book is as much about the family and the region as it is about the food.  To Sauceman, the Proffitt family epitomizes Appalachian regional values.  Besides quality, frugality, generosity, and pride in one’s work, the emphasis is on family and relationships.  Most of the employees have worked there for decades, sometimes with three generations of one family working together. 

When I confessed that I had never been to Ridgewood, my admission drew gasps from the audience.  I have been told that I simply must  make the trip.  After reading The Proffitts of Ridgewood, I am inclined to agree.  But whether you are a regular customer or neophyte like me, I think anyone with an interest in our region would enjoy this book.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Nevermore: Thanksgiving, Last Ballad, Indigo Girl, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wild Things, Murder on the Orient Express

Reported by Jeanne

Nevermore opened with a review of The Thanksgiving Book, a delightful browsing book which provides a history of the holiday, recipes, short stories, poems, and even suggestions for games.  Our reader enjoyed it thoroughly, noting that there were many feasts of harvest and thanksgiving before the Pilgrims ever held their feast; some, though not all, were in North America, too.  Had it not been for some friendly Native Americans, the colony would not have survived.  The seeds they brought with them from Europe did not germinate well in the sandy soil, and had the Pilgrims not been gifted with seeds from native plants they likely would not have had a harvest to celebrate.  However, the modern version grew out of the work of Sarah Josephina Hale, who lobbied several presidents for a national holiday.  Abraham Lincoln was the first to take her up on it, proclaiming a day of thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November, 1863.  The book is suggested for those interested in the true story behind the holiday.

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash is listed as fiction, but it’s based on the life of a real person,  Ella Mae Wiggin.  The story is set in North Carolina in 1929 where the young mother works at one of the many mills in the region.  It’s hard, dangerous work, for little pay, but since her husband has run off and she has children to support, Ella Mae has very little choice.  Then she hears about some people who are trying to organize a union, and begins to have hope for a better life.  Our reviewer thought this was a superb book, beautifully written.  She found it difficult to put down, and recommended it highly.

Another fictionalized version of an historical figure was presented in Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd.  In 1739, sixteen year old Eliza Lucas’ father sailed for the Caribbean, leaving her in charge of the family’s South Carolina plantations.  Eliza’s interest in botany leads her to experiment with different crops, but family troubles, war, and Eliza’s unconventional relationship with the slaves threatens all she holds dear. Our reader thought it was a fascinating book, but thought it was sad that no portrait of the real Eliza is known to exist.

We Were Eight Years in Power is the new collection of essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of the National Book Award for Between the World and Me.  Coates covers American race relations, politics, and history in his writing, including the case for reparations and the backlash again African Americans during Reconstruction.  As before, the writing is thoughtful and insightful.

The next book was Wild Things:  The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy, which turned out to be a bit of a let-down.  While Handy covered a number of classic children’s books, most of his choices were more modern pieces.  Our reviewer said she was especially disappointed that there was no mention of one of her childhood idols, Pippi Longstocking. She found some of the other selections a bit “off the wall.”

More enjoyable was Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, which had been chosen because of the new movie.  The detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express when one of the passengers is murdered.  There is a whole compartment of suspects and Poirot is hard pressed to sort them all out.  Our reader enjoyed it and was surprised at the ending.  She said she had figured some things out, but not all. 

Finally, a reader recommended The Chick and the Dead by Carla Valentine, the autobiography of a British pathologist. Valentine takes the reader through the process of an autopsy while also musing on how different cultures regard death.  She’s also candid about her personal life.  It was an entertaining mix.