Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dust off those aprons

Finally!  Season 4 of The Great British Baking Show returns to PBS on Friday, June 16 at 9:00 pm (check local listings) with two back-to-back episodes. While I'm sure you've been busy since Season 3 recreating all the delicious treats in your own kitchen, it will be great to see the new contestants, flour-covered and stressed, attempting to follow the sometimes vague directives from Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.  Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are back as hosts, cheerleaders and (in a pinch) tasters.  

For a sneak peek, check out the PBS Great British Baking Show website. You can meet the new contestants and watch some videos to get some inspiration before the fresh season kicks off.  The series begins with two episodes:

Cake (9 pm - Check Local Listings) 
In the first episode, the 12 bakers test their baking skills as they tackle a back-to-basics British classic, a popular cake with a fatless sponge and tricky chocolate work. 

Biscuits (10 pm - Check Local Listings) 
The remaining bakers are asked to make 24 elaborately decorated biscuits; a biscuit that requires perfect piping; and a biscuit structure that demands precision baking. 

So get ready to settle in with a cuppa and choose your favorite contestant this week!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Tears of a Clown

I have always enjoyed Paula Poundstone's comedy whenever I've had the opportunity to hear her, so I was thrilled to get a copy of her new book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  The book details her attempts to try various projects to see which, if any, would increase her feelings of happiness.  Each chapter takes a look at one of the things she tried.  The book starts with the "Get Fit Experiment" where she signs up for taekwondo classes.  Other things she tries include getting organized, driving a sports car, giving to others (through plasma donation and volunteering at a nursing home) and mediation (among others).  Each experiment is written up in a manner to appear somewhat scientific with a Hypothesis, list of Equipment, the Procedure and various Qualitative Observations, Constants, Field Notes and some Analysis of the project's ability to increase happiness.

While I expected the book to be funny, and it certainly had lots of humorous observations, I was unprepared for the many sad, alarming and depressing details the author shared about her own life.  In addition to being somewhat dysfunctional herself (she claims to suffer from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and alcoholism), she wrote quite a bit about how much she struggles financially, yet she has 16 cats (in the house!) several dogs, a rabbit, a lizard and a bunny.  She also adopted 3 children, only one of whom seems to treat her with anything but contempt.  Her son, she claims, has a "computer/video game" addiction, to the point that she sent him to an electronics-free school in Virginia, but she never really provided any proof of this other than to say he always wanted to use her computer.  She also states, time and time again, that her children "have never watched television" although they have a TV and watch movies.  So movies=good, but TV=bad  . . . not sure what the justification for that was, either.

So while I enjoyed the occasional humorous observation, I was mostly left dismayed about the holes in her shoes, her lazy, deceitful children, her ramshackle house covered in "cat pee and vomit" and the fact that she doesn't even have a bed but sleeps on a sheet on the floor that she folds up every morning when she gets up.   Instead of being a funny or inspiring book (which I was expecting), I read about a woman who was struggling to keep it together in the face of non-stop chaos (OK, some of it self-inflicted . . . I mean I'm a cat lover, but I stop at three).  I can't really say I enjoyed the book.  All of the blurbs on the front and back of the book are from various celebrities talking about how funny it was.  I'm not sure they read the finished copy.

I received a copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for this review

Friday, June 2, 2017

I didn't go to college but I have many of the insights

Can you ever really leave your past behind?  Even if you choose to totally re-invent yourself?  That seems to be the central question in the novel Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan. The novel starts out on a promising (for me, anyway) note when 8 people (mostly college students) decide to investigate an old abandoned prison.  What could possibly go wrong?  Things do go wrong, but for me the main wrong turn was away from what I hoped would be a spooky mystery into  . . . I'm not exactly sure what, but the early Gothic spookiness quickly evaporated and didn't return.

The book begins in 1980 when college friends Quentin, Casey, Tripper, Wailer, Maisie and Rachel, along with Maisie's brother Ben and Quentin's German professor Herr Krystal decide on a whim to visit the ruins of the abandoned prison.  They soon discover it has been taken over by feral cats, as well as a very creepy/haunted feeling atmosphere.  As young boys are wont to do (especially in novels), young Ben runs off after a cat, causing the group to splinter in an attempt to locate him.  Have these people never seen a horror movie?  Don't they know you never split up the group?  Apparently not.  By the time Ben is located, one member of the group has disappeared.

After this event, the story shifts to the present day, when the remaining college friends are in their late 50s and no longer in touch.  The main narrator of the book, one of the students, has left the past behind in a major way and is living with a spouse and stepchild in rural Maine.  Although this person has been married for 15 years, of course just now things in the marriage are becoming a little strained, and a big secret from the past is revealed.  At the same time, a skeleton has been discovered in the abandoned prison (which is being revitalized) and so the mystery of WHERE the missing student is has been answered. The police investigation begins to try to figure out what happened so long ago and the former friends will be reunited as secrets from the past are revealed.

I was intrigued by the description of this book, hoping it would be a creepy mystery, but sadly it's not.  A major problem is that each chapter jumps around both in terms of time period and character being discussed.  It was extremely confusing to try to figure out who was speaking each time a new chapter began.  Also, at the beginning and the end of the book, characters are forever spouting German, for no apparent reason.  There was a lot of description about the old abandoned prison, which also didn't really add anything to the story but served to add to the confusion.  Perhaps if I had known going in that it wasn't going to be an eerie ghost story or mystery I might have enjoyed the book more.  As it was, I was frustrated by all the shifts in characters and although there was a curve ball thrown in at the end, I was still disappointed.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Long Black Veil from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Come out of the proverbial cat closet

We've all heard of the "crazy cat lady" but what about the crazy cat men?  There must be some out there.  Author Sam Kalda takes a look at some famous men throughout history who loved their feline friends in Of Cats and Men.

Starting in the 10th century with Welsh King Hywel the Good (who recognized the value of cats as cheap vermin controllers and therefore protected them through law) on down the centuries to the present day, many influential men have been inspired, amused and comforted by cats.  This colorful book takes a page to describe the man in question, his history, and his connection to cats.  Each page also includes a drawing of the man and his inspirational cat.  There are many cat-admiring quotes sprinkled throughout the book as well.

Anyone who loves cats will be entertained by the many achievements of cats -- while their owners may take credit, it's really the cats who were responsible for inventing the cat flap (Sir Isaac Newton), alternating current (Nicola Tesla) Companion cats have also inspired poetry, musicals, art and even dance performances.  It was also somewhat surprising for me to learn that somewhat stereotypically "gruff" men, including Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill are among the famous cat lovers. You can even follow some of the more outgoing modern cats on social media.

This book is a charming look at how cats have been loving, loyal and amusing companions to some of history's greatest leaders, artists and scientists.  Those ancient Egyptians, who revered cats as gods, were certainly on to something!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Of Cats and Men from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Monday, May 1, 2017

It's really all about me

While we all need to earn money to survive, equally important is having an enjoyable and healthy life away from work.  In Wellth, author Jason Wachob looks at various components that make up a happy and well-balanced life.

The book is divided into sections such as Eat, Move, Thank, Laugh, etc.  The author gives experiences from his own life for each section, and also usually has an expert on the topic give further information.  He quotes the doctor and author Aviva Romm's instructions for visualization and justification for why this practice is so important. However, most of these experts are introduced with, "My friend so-and-so . . ." (except for the instances where the quoted expert is his "good friend). There are also small "blurbs" scattered throughout the book from famous authors/speakers (but we are mercifully spared his relationship to them).

While there are some words of wisdom throughout the book (mostly in the "Quick Deposit in Your Wellth Account" summary at the end of each chapter), the book is more of a biography of the author and how he got where he is today.  The first chapter, Eat, starts out stating that no diet can work for everyone, because we're all different.  He then goes on to tell (throughout the entire rest of the book) the way he does things -- although to be fair,  he usually gives alternatives in case his way doesn't appeal to you. I just found the book to be too centered on the author, his background, education, business failures and personal life, to be useful to a general audience.  For instance, he goes into great detail about a health scare his wife had and includes the sentence, "The next day Colleen's sister Kerry came by to see us with her fiance (now husband) Eric, as well as Tara Stiles and Michael Taylor."  Now what possible interest could that be to anyone who isn't personally acquainted with these people??? He also mentions his current business venture many, many times (including on the cover of the book).  If you can skim through the ends of each chapter to the "Wellth Account" advice, you'll save a lot of time.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Wellth from Blogging For Books in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Here we go again

Journalist Leslie Kean wanted to investigate the evidence for an afterlife.  In her book Surviving Death, she looks at phenomena such as "life before birth" (children recounting details of previous lives), out of body experiences by people who died and came back, medium activities and "full-form materializations."  Her conclusion is that there is plenty of evidence for consciousness surviving outside the body, and that humans have yet to fully understand all of the implications of this fact.  Several chapters in the book are written by people who were actively involved in the individual cases being discussed.

The book looks at several cases of young children who spontaneously began to recount details from previous lives.  Far from claiming to be Cleopatra or Napoleon, the lives being recalled were of "average Joes."  One child had vivid and terrifying nightmares about being unable to escape from a plane crash.  Another one recalled working on films in Hollywood.  The parents of the children documented their statements and were eventually able to track down the people their children had been in previous lives.  It is uncanny to hear that the children could recall details that they would have had no way of knowing.  In the cases that Kean documents, once the children are able to visit the places they knew in previous lives, they become calmer and eventually the distressing or overwhelming memories of their past selves fade.  Interestingly, these children also report "intermission memories" which occur after one life ends but before the next one begins.

Another section of the book details OBE (Out of Body Experiences), where the consciousness of a person leaves the body during cardiac arrest.  These people describe floating above their bodies and being able to relate things that happened while they were unconscious. An interesting aspect to OBEs is that some blind people have reported being able to see during them.  These situations are different from NDEs (Near Death Experiences) where people in cardiac arrest travel to different dimensions beyond the physical world.  Cases involving these types of experiences have been reported from around the world, and from people of various cultures and religions.  The striking thing about both OBE and NDE situations are that they are remarkably similar when people who have experienced them relate what happened.  Scientists who have studied the phenomena don't know if this is attributable to a physiological reaction of the body/brain, or if it is an actual experience that occurs when the consciousness is freed from physical limitations.

Similarly, some people experience ELEs (End of Life Experiences) where, on their deathbeds, they are visited by deceased relatives or friends who reassure them about the process of dying. These experiences are positive, with the people often reported to be "joyous" after they occur.  Occasionally even bystanders or relatives see the apparitions, or see light or a form surrounding or leaving the dying person.

The author also works with mediums who claim to be able to converse with those who have died.  She found that some mediums were able to reveal remarkably accurate information.  While many people claim to have the ability to communicate with the dead, two mediums who were able to reveal accurate information were able to describe to the author how they receive messages from "the other side."

The author mentions that when asked if she believes in life after death, she responds, "The question must be moved from the field of belief into the field of data."  Her research into the inexplicable events that have been recounted by those who are dying, have "come back" from death or describe previous lives, shows that we have much yet to learn about what happens to us after death.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Surviving Death from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Serial Killer Blog Junkie

Richard Carter is a deputy sheriff in a rural Missouri town in Journey Man.  One day, he is called out to a cemetery where a tombstone with his name (and a death date two months in the future) has been recently erected.  While it’s apparently not a crime to put up a tombstone for someone who is still alive, the event leaves Carter unnerved.  Is this meant as a joke or is it something more sinister?

Whatever the cause, he doesn’t have long to ponder the significance, because a body is soon discovered in the woods.  The young woman is found elaborately bound, with a plastic bag over her head and a length of plastic tubing tied around her neck.  The victim isn’t from the area, so the first thing Carter and his fellow deputies must do is attempt to establish her identity.  The sheriff’s department has recently been expanded.  Joining Carter, his boss “Shug” Shively and fellow deputy Ron Guidry are Jared “JMac” McAnulty and Cicely “Kit” Kitteridge.  The two new officers apparently have hopes of eventually moving on to work with the FBI, a dream Carter has had to give up due to some events in his past.

As Carter begins to investigate the murder, he is required to be away from home for longer and longer periods.  This is particularly bad timing, as his wife Jill is going through a particularly rough time in her life.  The couple live in a cabin outside of town along with 8-year-old daughter Mirabelle, with only young neighbors Raven and Shane nearby.  Due to the area of Missouri where they live, Jill has become increasingly worried about safety during storms, so she is having a storm shelter, as well as a bedroom for Mirabelle, added onto their cabin.  As well as her worry about storms, she is also having dreams about previous events where she or her family have been in danger.  Even though the family has a large dog, she continually hears noises in the house.  She works as a community college instructor, but sometimes her anxiety is so bad that she skips her classes rather than leave the house.

When news about the murder hits the media, a woman comes forward with an unbelievable tale.  She tells Carter that she was attacked and left for dead a few years ago, and she believes the same person who attacked her also killed the young woman.  Nicole Whitmer was married to a pastor at the time, and he persuaded her not to report the attack at the time, since he feared the publicity would impact his church negatively.  Still, Carter (and other policemen) are skeptical of her story.  As Carter learns more about her and the events surrounding her situation, he begins to believe her.  But if she was also attacked by the same man, what has he been doing in the 3 years since that first crime?  Carter has an FBI friend who tells him that they are tracking a serial killer known as “Journey Man” who as a similar MO to Carter’s killer.  He’s called “Journey Man” because victims have been found across the US, meaning he’s a killer on the move.  Has he made a stop in Carter’s town?

I enjoyed reading about the very real themes that were explored in this book: male/female roles, overcoming stereotypes and working through anxiety.  It showed real situations where men in positions of authority treat male and female subordinates in the same job very differently.  It also showed how females in non-traditional roles work hard to prove themselves and how they can become overly defensive or interpret actions as being hostile when no offense was intended.  At the same time, there were some odd quirks with the book.  There were long, long, LONG conversations between characters, some job related but mostly personal, that went on and on.  For instance, when Jared McAnulty arrives, Carter is instructed to give him an overview of the job and what it entails.  They go out for coffee and he explains how “Shug” is a good boss, how to get along with him, and that drinking on the job is immediate grounds for dismissal.  A few days later, Kit Kitteridge arrives, and the boss once again asks Carter to show her the ropes.  They go out for coffee and he explains how “Shug” is a good boss, how to get along with him, and that drinking on the job is immediate grounds for dismissal.  It wasn’t really necessary to go over the same ground again! The Guidry character was supposedly a cross-word fanatic, and he was forever stopping in mid-sentence to give a long drawn-out explanation of word origins.  And he wasn’t the only one.  Jill, who, as a teacher and a mother undoubtedly wanted to educate her daughter, would respond to questions from her daughter in a word-for-word dictionary definition.  For instance, when she was cooking and the daughter asked what the word “macerate” meant, Jill responded, “To soften by steeping in liquid over a low heat.”   Also, when consulting a doctor for her physical problems, she tells the doctor she realizes “inappropriate activation of the involuntary nervous system can cause my glands to excrete excessively.” Who speaks like that?  Her poor students!

This is book 11 in a series, so there were some past events that were referred to that I was unfamiliar with.  There was a “Cast of Characters” section at the end that detailed the main characters and some events that have happened in previous books.  There was a lot going on, but the book tied up all the loose ends in a satisfying manner.  

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Journey Man in exchange for this review