book review: Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone is a fictional work written by Dr. Abraham Verghese (physician).  The author’s medical degree is evident throughout the book because its main character is a surgeon named Marion Stone.  Marion and his Siamese twin, Shiva, are the prodigy of a nun (Sister Mary Joseph Praise) who died while giving birth and a British surgeon named Thomas Stone who work at a hospital in Ethiopia.  No one knew that the nun was pregnant until she ran into complications while giving birth.  Thomas Stone finally realizes how much he loves the nun as he watches her die and, overcome with grief, disappears.  Marion and his brother are raised by two colleagues of their parents.  Despite being separated just after birth, the twins are mirror images of each other and maintain a ESP-like way of communicating well into their childhood.  The novel is told in first person narrative from Marion’s point of view.  The novel describes their coming of age in Ethiopia.  Both boys, like their parents and foster parents, end up going into medical fields.

Abraham Verghese has very flowery prose and, to be honest, it took some getting used to.  The first  few chapters were slow moving.  I also found it annoying how he kept telling readers the conclusion and then spent 10 chapters (this is an exaggeration, of course) explaining what happened.  The writing was well done, it was just a little verbose.  The story itself was engrossing.  A nun who gets pregnant, Siamese twins, a background of political unrest, fascinating, well-developed characters all add up to make a pretty interesting plot line.  It’s interesting how, despite dealing with the medical field, there was a lot of religion/mysticism woven into this book.  It’s old and new swirling around, finally settling as the characters grow and come to terms with their decisions.  I would say that this is one of the many themes in the book.

Another theme in the book centers around our past and fate.  The past keeps coming back – we can’t seem to escape it, as described in one of the old stories told to Marion about a pair of shoes.  We make decisions, trying to get away from it, but it keeps coming back and we finally have to accept it in order to move on.  Unpleasant events in our lives tend to get buried, but until we are able to confront and accept them, we cannot move on.  Marion deals with this in the form of a girl.  His father deals with this when Marion meets him.

If I had to describe this book with one word, it would be “epic.”  Finishing the book made me feel the same way I felt after watching “Doctor Zhivago” for the first time (the one with Omar Sharif).  I felt exhausted – as if I had been on a long journey, but I was glad I went on the journey.

cookbook review: PETA’s Vegan College Cookbook

With almost 300 recipes for college students, this cookbook is quite a collection of vegan recipes.  Unfortunately, many of the recipes are just regular recipes that call for vegan cheese instead of regular cheese or vegan mayo or vegan chocolate chips instead of regular chips.  I’m guessing that most people who become vegan end up having to do quite a bit of cooking for themselves so even college students might find many of the recipes in this book too simplistic.

The authors tried to gear the book towards college students by creating funny names for the recipes and by focusing on foods that college students might like – shakes, smoothies, pasta, ramen, chips, etc.  The section on ramen was actually a decent section (I remember making similar ramen when I was younger – the cooked ramen noodles, some frozen veggies, a bit of peanut butter, soy sauce).  The desserts section was also good.  Another good point for this book is that the recipes are all very short and easy.  Beginner cooks will have no trouble with these recipes and most of them don’t require any special cooking equipme3nt.

The problems with this cookbook are that, as mentioned before, most the recipes are regular recipes with vegan substitutions.  Another problem with this book is that there are no pictures!!  That is a huge downside in a cookbook.  There are a handful of illustrations of silly things like a carton of milk or some other ingredients, but there aren’t any pictures of the completed dishes.  Could it be because vegan cheese doesn’t melt?  🙂  Yet another drawback is that this book is geared towards college students and if you’ve ever bought vegan substitutes, you know that they are very expensive.  Vegan meat costs about $4 per package.  Vegan cheese is also pricey and it doesn’t melt well.  This is why I was really hoping that they would come up with more recipes that didn’t require vegan substitutes.

My favorite recipes are the ones that don’t call for substitutes, including the tofu crumble (resembles scrambled eggs).  I’ve made these before – I got the recipe from PETA years ago – and they are a close approximation to well-scrambled eggs.

Overall, this cookbook might be okay for a vegan college student who is new to veganism or who doesn’t know how to cook much.

I don’t know if they still do this, but PETA used to send out free starter kits for people who want to become vegan.  In this starter kit, there was a little pamphlet with some vegan recipes.  I can’t remember all of the recipes, but it included the scrambled tofu recipe, one for “fettucini alfonso” (made with frozen corn and tofu – genius!), and chocolate pudding (made from carob chips).  I know that all of the recipes I tried from the pamphlet tasted wonderful and I don’t think that any of them called for vegan substitutes like vegan mayo.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-book copy from NetGalley for my honest review.

book review: The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins is one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in quite a while.  (This is saying a lot since I’ve been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman!)  The very first paragraph describes a girl walking on a road having just committed the murder of a police officer.  The book keeps drawing you in after that.

The writing was wonderful.  The plot and characters were thought out and well-developed.  There are many characters and they all have distinct personalities without being caricatures.  I’m actually struggling with how to write this review because I’m worried I won’t do it justice.  I don’t want to sound trite, but I really, really liked this book.  It is a longish book, but reading it, you hardly notice.  You can’t help but care about the characters and what is happening to them.  Usually, when I read books, I’m not very surprised.  With this book, the plot and the characters were so creative that they surprised me.  It wasn’t a whimsical, dream-like plot – it was so smart!

Here’s the general plot line:  Carolyn is a young woman who has grown up at a “library” with her Father.  Her Father appears to be some sort of god with special powers and the library is full of scrolls that teaches people how to gain these powers.  Carolyn has several adopted brothers and sisters – David (violent, warrior), Michael (gets along with beasts), Jennifer (healer, with the power to bring people back from the dead), Peter (mathematics), Margaret (walks in the land of the dead), Rachel (has ghost children), and there were a few more but these are the main ones.  Her Father trained them harshly, punishing them for disobedience cruelly.  Carolyn and her siblings are forced out of the home where they grew up and their Father goes missing.  They have a love/hate relationship with they Father – he is the caregiver they remember (being adopted at about the age of 8, they don’t remember much about their biological parents), but he was so cruel in his training of them that they fear and hate him.

Warning: slight spoiler alert

 

 

 

 

The book is about Carolyn’s journey.  She goes from innocence to a hardened person and eventually has to learn to become an enlightened person.  She is a planner, cautious and secretive.  She has some help along the way from two regular people – Steve and Erwin.  Steve, Erwin, and some others (but saying who would give too much away) end up being Carolyn’s reminder of humanity.

Read this book!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

book review: Obedience to Authority

Obedience to Authority is not a new book, but it was recently brought to my attention by the movie, The Experimenter.  The Experimenter is about the author, Stanley Milgram, and his work on social psychology.  The movie focused more on his life, but I was more interested in the experiments and wanted to find out more so I bought the book.

The whole idea to his experiments begins with the Nuremberg trials.  Milgram head Eichmann and others claim that they were following orders.  Most people didn’t buy that argument because we, while not born with a moral compass, learn morality from our caregivers, from society, etc.  There was an article written (sorry, I can’t remember the author’s name now, but Milgram mentions it in his book) at around that time, supporting Nazis’ claims of obeying orders.  At the time, people lambasted the author.  Milgram wanted to test the idea to see how much merit was in the argument.

His experiments are basically thus: subjects were told that they were being recruited to do a memory experiment.  There are 3 people involved – the experimenter, a teacher, and a learner.  First, the experimenter meets with two people and has them draw papers to see who will be a teacher and who will be a learner.  The drawing is rigged because the “learner” is part of the experiment.  The “naive subject,” as Milgram calls it, always gets to be the teacher because both slips of paper say “teacher.”  The experimenter takes both of them to a different room, straps the learner in and has the naive subject receive a low level shock so that the teacher knows what it feels like.  The learner is instructed to learn word pairs.  The teacher is then taken back to the original room, told to read ordered pairs options and for every pair that the learner answers incorrectly, to give the learner a shock, with increasingly stronger shocks for each incorrect answer.  If the teacher starts to object, the experimenter is told to follow a script with things along the line of (not verbatim), “continue please,” “you must continue,” “the experiment requires that you continue,” etc.  The shocks are labeled with voltage levels as well as with descriptions – “slight shock” to “XXX” at the max 450 volts.  Milgram is really testing how far the teachers are willing to go.

His results were shocking (pun intended).  His first experiments were on Yale students and he found that over 60% of them were willing to go all the way up to 450 volts, even though they knew that such a shock was painful and dangerous.  He then tested males from the general population.  Again, he found that over 60% were willing to go all the way up to the 450 volts.  He tested women and again got about the same results.  He also did many variations of the experiments, having the learner complain of a heart problem before the experiment started, having the teacher forcefully place the learner’s hand on the shock plate, having 2 experimenters giving different opinions (2 conflicting voices of authority), and many more.  It was fascinating to read about the experiments and see the results tables.  Milgram’s experiments showed that, even though subjects were distressed at having to cause pain, their drive to obey was often so strong that they kept going.  Milgram pointed out over and over that people are not inherently sadistic.  Given the choice, teachers chose to use the lower levels of shock on learners.  Some teachers even tried to lie to the experimenters by telling them that they were shocking the learners at higher levels when they were actually using the lower levels.  The more the authority figure was removed from the experiment, the more likely people were willing to stop the experiment.

Most of the book is about the experiments, their results, and vignettes about the subjects.  Towards the end of the book, there are a few chapters on why people obey authority and under what circumstances.

I didn’t think much of the movie, but I loved that it brought Milgram’s work to my attention.  His work is important because it’s so easy for us to be dismissive of people’s actions.  If we were polled, we would probably say that we would definitely stop the experiment.  We want to believe that our moral compass will drive our actions, but as Milgram pointed out, there is a disconnect between our beliefs and our actions.  There are strong survival reasons for our willingness to obey authority, and being aware of those forces that influence us can help us break through that disconnect.

Book Review: The Skeleton Garden

The Skeleton Garden is part of a series of mysteries, but I hadn’t read the other 3 books in the series before reading this one.  It can be read as a stand alone book, but if you’re interested in trying out this author, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book.  This mystery was very slow moving.  It was also pretty obvious to me what had happened way before the end “reveal.”  I felt like I was waiting and waiting for something to happen and nothing happened until the end of the book.

There are other problems with this book.  First, it could have been maybe 1/2 the length that it was.  There was so much extra junk in the book that really didn’t add anything to the story.  There isn’t even any mention of a body until around chapter 9 or 10 … and then it’s another 10 chapters or so before there’s some action.  You could probably skip the first 15 chapters of this book and be just fine with understanding the plot line.  The characters are boring.  I found myself not liking Pru, the main character.  Her brother, Simon, was supposed to be old, but he acted like a 12-year-old spoiled brat throughout the book until the end.  I was hard pressed to find a character that I liked.

The characters were all pretty flat.  They all acted basically the same.  There are conflicts between the characters, but none of them had strong, distinguishing characteristics or personalities that made them stand out.  The younger characters (Oliver and his sort-of girlfriend) didn’t talk like younger people.  They way they were portrayed was what you would expect from an older person trying to pretend to be a younger person.  They way they talked and acted were either ridiculously adult-like or stereotypically ridiculous.   For instance, Oliver’s big claim to fame were his geeky abilities – hacking computers and being interested in some science fiction books.  He’s young – he must be into computers and hacking!  There was one line in the book where his girlfriend said something that made me roll my eyes – I can’t find the exact location now, but it was at the part where they’re talking about how her grandmother, Kitty, might have mistakenly thought that a duck or goose was a person.  It wasn’t realistic at all.  That’s probably my main complaint about this book. The characters just weren’t believable.  Pru goes from being annoyed with Oliver because he keeps messing things up for her to wanting him around.  There isn’t much of a transition in between.  She suddenly decides that she likes him, even though she has to spend all of her time fixing everything that he does.  Oliver, too, at first hates everything and then suddenly doesn’t want to leave.  The problem is that not only did I find the characters flat and unbelievable and unlikeable, I didn’t dislike any of the characters much either.  I simply didn’t care about any of them.

I can’t recommend this book.

I received a free e-copy of this book through NetGalley as part of #RHMysteryPack from Chatterbox by HouseParty.

book review: The Revenant

The Revenant is a fictional account of a (probably) true story about Hugh Glass.  Hugh Glass was a real person who joined a trapping expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the 1800s.  Glass was mauled by a bear and his injuries were so severe that he was expected to die.  The captain of the expedition, Andrew Henry, asks for two volunteers to stay behind to wait until Glass dies to give him a decent burial.  He offers $75 to volunteers.  In the book, the volunteers are a character with questionable morals named John Fitzgerald and a younger man named Jim Bridger.  Fitzgerald is painted as a villain, being motivated by greed and self-serving interests, as indicated by how he treats Glass (Fitzgerald tells Bridger not to give him any broth and not to give him a poultice in the hopes that he will die more quickly).  Bridger is shown as a youngster looking for acceptance and not quite sure of himself.  Morally, he is a better person that Fitzgerald because he tries to help Glass after seeing him in pain, but because of his insecurity, is afraid to stand up to Fitzgerald. After staying with Glass for a few days, Fitzgerald is worried about being attacked by a nearby hostile Arikara tribe.  Fitzgerald convinces Bridger that they must leave immediately and that Glass is about to die soon anyway.  Fitzgerald takes Glass’ prized gun and gives Glass’ knife to Bridger.  Bridger hesitates, knowing that Glass is trying to say that he wants his gun, but Fitzgerald wins in the end and they leave Glass with very little.

Of course, Glass survives and chases after Fitzgerald and Bridger to survive.  Reading this book reminded me of reading Hatchet when I was younger.  My favorite parts of the book were where the author was describing the methods Glass used to hunt, to build a fire, and to survive, despite having very little resources.  I have heard the movie described as being a movie about revenge.  I haven’t seen the book so I can’t comment about that, but the book, to me, is a book about survival (even if he is motivated by revenge).

**Spoiler alert, don’t read anymore if you haven’t read the book ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book is not about forgiveness.  Yes, Glass ends up forgiving Bridger (after he beats him to a pulp), but only because Bridger felt guilty about what he had done and offered no resistance.  Fitzgerald, on the other hand, never shows any remorse and the only thing stopping Glass from killing him was the fear of being arrested for murder.  (Fitzgerald was forced to join the U.S. armed forces after getting into some trouble and was therefore under the protection of the U.S. government.)  The book’s name, the “revenant,” refers to a dead spirit that comes back to life to terrorize the living.  This was Glass’ goal – to terrorize the two people who abandoned him.

The author did a wonderful job of capturing the raw wilderness – not only in the descriptions of what Glass had to endure to survive, but in the personalities of the characters involved.  These were tough, capable men, used to a hard life.

After finishing the book, I was curious about what was truth and what was fiction so I did some research online.  Hugh Glass was a real fur trader.  There were many stories about Glass surviving a bear attack, but Glass himself never documented the incident, and most likely, his story was embellished as it was retold.  It has not been confirmed that Fitzgerald and Bridger were really the two who stayed behind, but this is what is generally believed.  Fitzgerald joined the U.S. army.  Little else is known about Fitzgerald so his character is mostly made up.  The movie introduces a wife and son for Glass, but there are no such characters in the book.  Historically, there is also no documentation of a marriage for Glass.  Bridger became a famous mountain man and has several namesakes, including Bridger Range (Montana), Bridger Peak (southern Wyoming), Bridger Pass (southern Wyoming), and the Bridger National Forest (western Wyoming).  Glass was killed in a hunting expedition by an attack by the Arikara.

Cookbook review: Koreatown by Deuki Hong

Add this cookbook to the growing list of “celebrity chef” cookbooks.  For those who don’t know, Deuki Hong is the chef of a Korean barbecue restaurant in Manhattan.  This book imitates other cookbooks in this genre of cookbooks in that it tries for the funky vibe, trying to appeal to foodies who worship at the cult of David Chang.

First, I liked the general formatting of the book.  The pages were nicely covered (there weren’t tons of blank space on the pages), the font was easy to read (not too small, but not something from the large print section of the library), and the colors were vibrant.  There weren’t pictures of every recipe, but there were many recipes.

I liked some of the narrative in the cookbook.  For instance, the author pointed out that you should judge Korean restaurants by their banchan (so true!).  Of course, the entree is important, too, but I love the banchan.  There is a nice section at the beginning of the book with ingredients and equipment that are needed in many of the recipes as well as tips on where to purchase them. It was also interesting to read about the different Koreatowns across the United States.

I tried the bulgogi recipe, which was pretty easy to make and tasted decent.  Since I was eating it at home, I didn’t have all of the banchan and it just wasn’t quite the same as getting it at a Korean restaurant.

I have two major problems with this cookbook: (1) the celebrity chef interviews made no sense to me; (2) if you’re talking about the different Koreatowns across the United States, why not make the recipes specific to those regions in the cookbook?  There was an interview with David Chang on why he shouldn’t be called a “Korean” chef even though he is of Korean heritage.  His dad loved Japanese food so grew up loving Japanese food.  It’s mildly interesting, and while I like David Chang, I found my self wondering what the interview was doing in this cookbook.  The article really didn’t offer anything to the cookbook – it was an item of interest for David Chang fans could find on the Internet.  That’s where I thought the article belonged – on a blurb on the Internet or maybe in a foodie magazine like Lucky Peach, not in this cookbook.  Same goes for the articles with Andrew Zimmern and the other celebrity chefs.  My second major issue is after reading about some of the different Koreatowns, I wanted to know which recipes reflected the different regions.  It seemed like such a waste of a good idea.  We all know that there are regional differences to cuisine so why not present them?  Instead, the book is split up into categories such as kimchi/banchan, rice/noodles/dumplings, barbecue, etc.  I would have loved to see something along the lines of, here’s a recipe for kimchi you might find in New York and here’s one you might find in LA.  If the recipes are too similar, then why present information about different Koreatowns?

This cookbook seems to be having an identity crisis.  First, it’s trying to present traditional Korean recipes.  Second, it’s trying to imitate Lucky Peach with the cartoon illustrations and short interviews of celebrity chefs that add very little to the cookbook.  Third, it’s trying to introduce Korean culture by presenting information about different Koreatowns across the United States, but fails to tie in the culture to the cookbook.  Instead of being one cohesive unit, the cookbook consists of bits that have been thrown together under the general umbrella of “Korean.”

The sweets/desserts section is a bit odd – but the authors admitted that Korean desserts are different.  For example, there was a dessert with a hotdog sitting on top of a flaky pastry crust and the notes in the cookbook said that it was usually served with mustard and ketchup.  Not my typical idea of dessert, but I’ve never tried it so I can’t say anything.

The recipes themselves appear to be pretty easy to follow, but I don’t think this is a cookbook I will be using too often.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this cookbook from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Book review: Imagine Me Gone

I have mixed feelings about this book – on one hand, it deals with the important issue of mental illness and helps readers gain a better understanding of the struggles people with mental illness endure.  On the other hand, it shows a lot of what goes wrong with the treatment of mental illness, but little of what is right about helping someone with  mental illness.  This is evident in John’s (the father) life and in Michael’s (the son’s) life.

The book first takes us through John’s mental illness.  John struggles with a debilitating illness where he is fine and then everything gets to be too much and he completely shuts down.  During those times, he has to be institutionalized and undergoes shock treatments.  John’s mom is in denial and doesn’t visit him in the institution, lest she is forced to admit that her son is less than perfect.  Because of this, readers can infer that John received no help outside of when he was institutionalized for his mental illness.  John goes through a long period of functioning after getting married and having children – so long that his children do not even know that he has a mental illness – but inevitably and tragically, his mental illness resurfaces.  At these times, his wife, Margaret, does her best to be supportive, but the book is brutally honest.  While Margaret never abandons John, her impatience eventually shows.  She is able to understand that John isn’t capable of functioning when his mental illness takes over, but is unable to understand the illness or how to help John during these times.  John’s story shows readers what happens when there is little to no help for those with mental illness.

Michael, their son, also has a mental illness.  Unlike his father’s illness, Michael’s mental illness deals with anxiety.  He talks himself into a frenzy and there is little anyone can do to talk him out of it, as evidenced by the conversations he has with his sister, Celia.  Celia, being a psychologist, has a better understanding of how to deal with Michael than their other sibling, Alec.  For most of the novel, Alec lives his life and more or less ignores Michael.  Margaret does her best to help her Michael, mostly through financial aid.  Michael seeks help professionally for his mental illness, but unfortunately, the first therapist that he sees uses medication as his primary treatment instead of therapy or other alternatives.  The anti-anxiety medications work for a limited time, but the effects eventually wear off and Michael has to seek a higher dose or a different type of medication.  He goes from one therapist to the next, looking for someone willing to prescribe him medication.  The novel doesn’t say that medications to treat mental illness are bad, but it does say that they are not the panacea and can have dire consequences when overused.  Alec, while he cares for his brother, is concerned that Margaret is spending her limited income to support Michael.  Alec’s life comes together – he becomes involved in a committed relationship – and starts to feel guilty that his brother doesn’t have this.  He decides to commit to helping Michael kick the medication habit by staying with Michael in a cabin they used to visit as children.  At first, things seem to be going according to Alec’s plan – Michael is weaned off most of the medication and his memories start to come back.  He is talking the way Alec remembered his brother being when they were younger.  However, there is a limit to Michael’s progress.  He develops insomnia and begs Alec to give him some of his pills back, but Alec chooses to ignore Michael’s pleas for medication.  Alec’s well-intentioned actions show how little people, even ones who care about those with mental illness, understand the nature of the illness.  Alec’s extreme withdrawal of medications implies that Michael can overcome his mental illness with sheer will – he doesn’t need any medication.  This is not a solution any more than the over subscribing of medications is a solution.

This book is well written and thought provoking.  Again, my only criticism is that I wish it had somehow introduced some successful coping mechanisms for people with mental illness and their families.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this ebook through NetGalley.