Book Review : Beaten, Seared and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon

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The book comes with the tagline, “On Becoming a Chef at The Culinary Institute of America.” That should give you a fair idea of what the book is about. It is about one man’s experience, training to be a chef. It is a memoir and a surprisingly good one. I have read quite a few such memoirs, so I came to this book feeling a bit blasé.

I was between books and I wasn’t in the mood to pick up anything very heavy or very engrossing. So, a bit of light reading, I thought. And it was. But it was also a surprising amount of fun. This is a good book. The writing is not exceptional, but it is good. And it is written with an honesty that I found rather appealing.

Jonathan Dixon is a writer and a journalist who in his late thirties decided to make a career change. So he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and he trained to become a chef. He had a lot of doubts and insecurities, obviously.  It is not easy to go back to school when you’re pushing forty. It takes a fair bit of courage and faith in yourself.

Some of the book is about that…the joy and the fear involved in throwing everything up and going off to follow your dream when you’re at an age where you’re supposed to be settled into a career, married, starting a family and so on. It is a difficult choice to make and it is even harder to stick to it once you’ve made it, particularly when you are having money troubles and you’re surrounded by people half your age.

The bigger part of the book is an account of his experience learning to cook. He writes about the CIA, the teachers, his fellow students, all of the things he learns, both small and big and you get a real sense of what it is like to be in culinary school and how difficult and how rewarding the entire experience can be, for someone who loves to cook.

I like to cook and I love memoirs, so of course, I enjoyed the book. But I don’t think you have to be interested in food to enjoy this book. It is a well written memoir, full of interesting characters and it is at its core an account of someone trying to follow a dream.

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Book Review : A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke

I have been on a bit of a science fiction trip ever since I read The Martian. I read 3001 The Final Odyssey soon after and then I went back to read 2001…and 2010…, the first two books in the Space Odyssey series and I have discovered once again the genius of Arthur C Clarke.

He is a wonderful writer with the ability to create interesting characters and to write engrossing stories with intricate plots and the kind of plot twists that keep you reading. But his great strength as a writer of science fiction is his ability to imagine believable futures.

A lot of fantastic things happen in his stories, but the situation of the characters and the kind of world that they live in is nearly always the kind of world that ours might very easily evolve into. He is often idealistic in his assumptions that humans will finally put aside their petty grievances and attempt peace rather than war, but I don’t think idealism is a bad thing in a writer. The way I see it, if we are going to imagine a future, why not imagine a good one, why not imagine that humanity will make sensible choices instead of stupid ones?

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So this book, A Fall of Moondust, is set on the Moon, in a future in which humans have gone beyond the Earth and have settlements on most of the planets and sattelites in the solar system. They have in fact, been living on the moon long enough to have had people born there.

But most people still live on Earth and the Moon is a popular travel destination. And one of the tourist attractions on the Moon is a trip on the Selene, a hovercraft, the moon’s equivalent of a tourist bus. One of the attractions on the tour is the ‘Sea of Thirst’.

This is a fictitious location on the Moon. It is supposed to be a flat plane covered with fine dust which flows almost like water. The Selene and it’s crew have crossed the ‘Sea of Thirst’ many, many times. But on this particular trip, there is a moonquake that occurs, causing an underground cavern to collapse. The Selene goes under the dust and is trapped. It has to be rescued.

The entire book is about this rescue mission. It is a classic premise and it plays out like any good thriller. There are interesting characters, difficult situations, a whole lot of problems and a great deal of intelligent problem solving…all of it based on real science.

This is hard science fiction (a term that I learnt recently.) It just means science fiction with an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical detail or science fiction with a good deal of real science in it (which is what I used to call it in my head until I learnt that there was an actual term for this.)

The book begins with the moonquake and the ship getting trapped under all that dust. We see the passengers and the crew on the ship and their attempts to cope with the situation. On the other side are the scientists and the crew involved in the rescue and the problems they face in dealing with the peculiar nature of the Moon.

When the Selene goes underground, for example, the dust covers it right up and goes back to being as smooth and undisturbed as before…something that would never happen on Earth. And the dust itself is so weird. It is not solid, like mud and not liquid like water. And there’s tons of it that has to be moved somehow and twenty-two people on the Selene who have to be dug out of there.

Arthur C Clarke begins with an interesting premise and he delivers a book that is interesting and engaging. It feels real enough that after a while you start to think that ‘Calvius base’ is a real place and that there are real people living and working on the moon…it is not a brilliant book, but it is a good one and it is definitely worth reading.

Book Review : Paris Letters by Janice Macleod

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The blurb for this book is as follows:

“How much money does it take to quit your job?”

Exhausted and on the verge of burnout, Janice poses this question to herself as she doodles on a notepad at her desk. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as daunting as she expected. With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe.

A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind Paris romance.

She soon realizes that she can’t ever return to the world of twelve-hour workdays and greasy corporate lingo. But her dwindling savings force her to find a way to fund her dreams again. So Janice turns to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.

It sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? It’s a memoir and it could have been cheesy given the well worn, oft-repeated theme, but it isn’t. It is an honest, funny, self-deprecating account of the author’s attempts to turn her life around, to get out of the corporate rut and create a life that is happy and meaningful.

And the way she goes about it is so unusual. She writes letters to people, painted letters. Each letter is set in a particular spot in Paris. She paints the scene, leaving some room for text and writes about that place and that moment in time.

Then she makes copies of that letter and sells them on etsy.com. The letters are beautiful and she has subscribers who get twelve letters a year. Some of them write back and there is this wonderful correspondence in the book between Janice and her grandmother and this other lady, a Canadian called Mary.

The book is written well and it holds your interest all through. The reason for this, apart from the writing is the author herself. She’s funny and quirky and she’s engagingly honest. And Christophe, her husband by the end of the book, is very charming.

She writes lovingly about him and her account of their wordless romance (you can’t talk much when you don’t know each other’s language) is well worth reading about.

Book Review : 3001 The Final Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

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This the fourth and final part of Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and in my opinion, it is the most disappointing.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I loved the premise and I found the first half of the book very engaging, but then it completely lost it’s way and towards the end, I was reading just to find out how it would all be explained.

This review will probably not make any sense to someone who hasn’t read the first two books in the series. I apologise for that, but it is a complicated story and a bit too long to go into here. I will say though, that 2001 A Space Odyssey and 2010 Odyssey Two are utterly brilliant and a must read for anyone who likes science fiction.

So, Back to 3001 The Final Odyssey. The book begins with a space ship finding Frank Poole (one of the astronauts to go on the original discovery mission in 2001.) He was presumed to be dead, but it turns out that he was frozen and therefore still alive. He’s rescued and revived. The year is 3001 and Frank wakes up to find himself living in a world that is a 1,000 years after his time.

The first part of the book deals with him learning about this new world and trying to find his place in it. This part of the book is very interesting. I like the way Arthur C Clarke has imagined and presented the beginning of the 30th century. It is all very plausible and yet it is intriguing and the reader finds himself discovering all the new and wonderful (and sometimes not quite wonderful) changes along with the protagonist.

Then the focus turns to Europa. Poole makes a trip to Europa and contacts his old ship mate Dave Bowman who was turned into a creature of pure energy by the end of the first book. Poole talks to him and tries to make some sort of contact with the Europans….

The story is quite interesting up to this point and then it jumps ahead 15 years in which time Poole apparently gets married, has kids and then gets divorced. And one fine day he gets a strange message from David Bowman saying that humanity might be in danger. The how and the why are never explained. We’re just told that the monolith on Europa which has been inactive for a thousand years is suddenly receiving a lot of messages and instructions and that Bowman can only guess that it is threat and humanity has to somehow find a way to save itself.

I won’t go into any more detail because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone. All I will say is that I wish this book had lived up to all the potential that it promised in the first few chapters.

 

 

Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

9780007586356 This is a book that might be described as experimental fiction. It is a novel written entirely in letters. That is hardly new, but these are all recommendation letters.

The main character is Professor Jason Fitger. He teaches creative writing at Payne University. He has been teaching for many, many years now and a good part of his work life is taken up with these letters, recommending students for jobs or fellowships, recommending colleagues for promotions and so on.

As any academic knows (I used to be one, so I can definitely relate) writing recommendation letters is a somewhat tedious part of your work. And it seems that Professor Fitger has just about had it. He is so sick of the whole business that he starts adding his own touches to what are essentially form letters.

There is humour, irony and sarcasm as he pokes fun at his students, their prospective employers, the university and the system. But there is sadness here too and genuine warmth as he tries to help a deserving student. As the letters go on, you start to see glimpses of the Professor’s own life, his hopes and ambitions, his mistakes and his regrets.

It is a beautiful book. It is touching and thought provoking. It makes you wonder about students and education and the what and the why of it all. How can you possibly tell a coherent story in recommendation letters? I thought when I first heard about this book. Well it seems you can. It is incredibly hard to do, but Julie Schumacher has definitely pulled it off.

Book Review: My Grape Village by Laura Bradbury

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This is the second book by Laura Bradbury, also a memoir, also set in Burgundy. It is set around five years after the first book (My Grape Escape) which I reviewed in my previous post.

At the time the narrative begins, the author and her husband have been running a successful vacation rental business for the last five years and are now looking to buy another house to repair and restore.

They have been living in Canada all these years and have just made the decision to move to Burgundy for good. But it isn’t just them. They now have two daughters, both under five. It is a big move and it is tougher on all of them than they thought it would be.

Their kids have to adjust to a new school, a new culture and a foreign language while the parents negotiate the purchase of a house and once again set themselves an near impossible deadline by which it has to be ready to rent.

It is hard work, made harder by the fact that workmen aren’t readily available, they don’t have a much of a house to live in while they work and their kids seem to be unhappy at school for the first several months.

This is a memoir that is very much about the day to day joys and struggles of a young family trying to adjust to living in a foreign country. There is plenty of musing about what parenting means and how the French see it as opposed to the North Americans. There are the doubts and struggles that every new parent is familiar with….

It is a narrative that could easily descend into being mundane and repetitive. The fact that it doesn’t, is entirely due to the author’s skill with words, her ability to make you see and hear and feel. It is impossible not to care about this young couple and their kids as they make mistakes and learn and just try to keep going.

The writing is excellent and the pacing is smooth…right up until the end when it felt a bit rushed. I enjoyed this book, but I did feel that the last few chapters needed tighter editing. That small complaint aside, it is a delightful read.

Book Review: My Grape Escape by Laura Bradbury

This is a memoir that I read back in December. It was an Amazon recommendation. It sounded good and the reviews were all quite wonderful.

But I hesitated to buy it, because the book follows what is by now a thoroughly overworked theme…the story of someone who bought an old house in a French village and then went about restoring it while experiencing all the joys of rural France.

So I didn’t expect much from it and I was very pleasantly surprised.

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My Grape Escape is an account of the author’s journey from being all set to be a lawyer to giving all of that up to run a vacation rental in Burgundy, in a small village called Magny les Villiers along with her husband Frank who is a native of Burgundy.

The narrative begins with Laura and Frank going from Oxford, where she was studying law to stay with Frank’s family for a while. It is a vacation after all the gruelling law exams that Laura has just finished. Being in Burgundy is wonderfully restful and the author finds herself wondering if she really wants all the stress of the law career that she’s worked so hard for.

She realises that she doesn’t and that is as scary as it is freeing. She finds herself wondering what to do next when almost on impulse she and her husband decide to buy a small house in Burgundy, a vacation home for themselves which eventually turns into a vacation rental and a small business.

They find a house after quite a bit of trouble. They buy it and they get to work fixing it up. They advertise it as a vacation rental and suddenly they have bookings and a deadline they have to meet. It is, of course, a lot of work and they don’t have enough time or money and they have all sorts of troubles.

The author takes you through all their struggles, their doubts and their difficulties with such honesty that you can’t help but feel for this young couple and cheer them on through the tough times, the small victories and the invetivable setbacks.

There’s a whole bunch of interesting people who end up helping them, loads of wine and wonderful food and so many experiences that you can only have in France.

Now I’m an unabashed francophile and I would have enjoyed this anyway, but what made this book so special is the writing. This is Laura Bradbury’s first book, but you wouldn’t think it. The writing is fluid and the pace is just right. The descriptions are beautiful and you can almost see, hear and feel everything.

And the people in the book are so very real. The author is a Canadian and she is surrounded by French people who look at life very differently from her time and goal driven North American way of seeing things. They frustrate her no end, but sometimes they make her stop and think that maybe she doesn’t have to worry so much. Maybe it is okay to believe that things will work out…

It is a thoroughly delightful book and the first thing I did when I finished reading it was to go buy the sequel.