Thursday, August 30, 2012

Seating Arrangements, by Maggie Shipstead

Set over the course of a 3 day WASPY New England island wedding, Seating Arrangements perectly depicts and skewers the faux-genteel world of the cashless pedigreed, where shabby rugs are a sign not of being in the red, but of being blue-blooded. Daphne, the bride, is pregnant- a disappointment to her parents to be sure, but marrying Greyson Duff makes up for her indescretion. Livia, her passionate and depressed younger sister, is reeling from being dumped by Teddy Fenn after making a very public scene, and their parents, Biddy and Winn, are dealing with their own choices in this story that spares no one.
Daphne's bridesmaids, temptress Agatha, silly Piper, and self-determined Donimique, and Greyson's groomsmen, his brothers Sterling and Francis only add more tension to the party, and sexual and social tensions escalate to an almost farcical level- almost, because the writing is so strong that the escalations feel inevitable, and even Winn's desperate attack on a gaudy neighbor's weathervane can be taken as a serious rejection of a world that has passed him and 'his kind' by.
Pitch-perfect, with memorable characters and Fitzgeraldian lyricism, Seating Arrangements is a book I will be recommending to many, many readers, and I will be eagerly anticipating Maggie Shipstead's next book!

The Muffin Tin Cookbook: 200 Fast, Delicious Mini-Pies, Pasta Cups, Gourmet Pockets, Veggie Cakes, and More, by Brette Sember

I have to say, I do prefer cookbooks with lots of photos of the finished product, but in this case, I was almost glad not to see images of Grown-Up Bologna Sandwiches made in muffin tins, or CornDog Cups.
I was impressed by the calorie and nutritional breakdowns of each recipe, but the dishes seemed to be aimed to please someone who would be craving different things than I would.
The few images provided of some dishes reinforced my impression that the Muffin Tin stunt is really about portion control, rather than to improve a meal by making it in a muffin tin, and were frankly unappetizing.
The best recipes seemed to be the most traditional, muffin-y/breakfast-y dishes, and some seemed like they would be great for a Sunday brunch, like maybe the eggs and lox, or the French Bread French Toast- the book really comes into it's own when suggesting recipes that would be easy to cook up a dozen at a time!
Some neat ideas, but would need a lot of tinkering to really be to my taste.

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, James Howard Kunstler

I have been a long term fan and reader of Kunstler, and felt that this was sadly his weakest book yet.
He covers much of the same territory as he covers in The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, which is a wonderful and eye-opening book, but Too Much Magic is very much a rehash of those same topics.
Kunstler's blog, [...] has long been an interesting read, but I can't help but feel he has lost his way somewhere.

In The Long Emergency, Kunstler neatly and concisely brought together a number of themes- unsupported development, unsustainable lifestyles, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, and so on, and predicted a future that will resort to a kind of agrarian feudalism in many areas. In his novels, World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron, he takes those themes and creates a bleak future scenario, with some very dark scenes, and some disturbing twists- in his novels, women are relegated to a status of breeders, and men control the society. In his novels, that is one thing, but in Too Much Magic, he starts to respond to criticism about that issue, and then trails off into ranting, without fully explaining his view of the roles of women in his imagined "long emergency".

He also left this reader worried, when he started talking about how the Moon landing left him terrified and suspicious of technology- it is one thing to be aware of and alarmed by the limitations of technology, and to be worried about energy supply, but it is quite another to come across as a frightened luddite, cringing from images of mankind's achievements.

Another source of MAJOR frustration is that for Kunstler, there is apparently no middle ground- he writes about trying to live with a smaller footprint, but admits that he is (as are most Westerners) responsible for much of the damage and destruction he discusses, but then contrasts that with living with the Kalahari bushmen, as a solar-society transplant, and concludes he would be useless in the Kalahari. I feel like his (understandable) addiction to his own creature comforts is hindering him from seeing a less dichotomous choice- and that by positing the Kalahari bush-men experience as the guilt-free option, he is deliberately being obtuse and ignoring the many more accessable ways we can lessen our own impact on the world.

Truly disappointed in this book, and unfortunately, this bad experience has left me questioning the validity and worth of his previous works.

12.21, by Dustin Thomason

Very much in the tradition of Michael Crichton, 12.21 is a rollicking, fast paced thriller. Chel Manu, a Guatemalan American artifact researcher at the Getty Museum, recieves a copy of a smuggled ancient Mayan codex- an invaluable find that she knows was illegally looted, yet she can't resist trying to find out what it says.
At the same time, in a charity hospital in East LA, an intelligent and perceptive resident, Michaela Thane, begins to suspect that the disease a John Doe is suffering from might be prion-based, and contacts Gabe Stanton, a CDC investigator and expert on prion diseases.
This is a stuffed-to-bursting book, with ancient history, speculation, high-tech labs and old-school potions, hints of romance, lots of action, and an ending that ties it all together and leaves the reader wanting more. For fans of Dan Brown, Michael Crighton, or Richard Preston.

Visit Sunny Chernobyl, by Andrew Blackwell

Excellent and interesting disaster tourism. Blackwell visits some of the world's most polluted areas, and tries to figure out what kind of legacy and meaning the idea  of "unspoiled nature" still has- given that it is ALL SPOILED, jesus christ, so let's look at the really bad things and see what beauty or meaning can be salvaged.
From the fishing in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to sightseeing in Alberta's oil sands to the foul sounding Yamuna River in India, he hits some amazing little-seen sights, and although his own personal heartbreak takes his writing off course, still a great read.

Broken Harbor, Tana French

Excellent 4th book in French's Dublin Murder Squad series. Set in a lonely, half-built "luxury estate" on the coast, Detective "Scorcher' Kennedy is faced with a gruesome crime in a place that has it's own harrowing memories for him.
So well done- the mix of psychological thriller and police procedural is brilliantly done, and her in-depth characterizations are wonderful.