Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Careful Use of Compliments

by Alexander McCall Smith

Thumbs Up.

Until the other day, I had been under the mistaken idea that the Isabel Dalhousie series was to have only three books.  I suppose this was a surmise on my part based on the neatly finished feeling at the end of the third book.  But I quickly grabbed this the forth installment when I saw it.  And I look forward to picking up the fifth and sixth books in the series.

For those who are unfamiliar with Isabel Dalhousie, she is the the editor of the fictional Review of Applied Ethics.  She lives in Edinburgh and is independently wealthy.  She is now mother to Charlie, who in this book is a few months old.  In each book, Isabel ends up investigating/prying into some mystery.  The difference between investigating and prying into is a fine line when viewed through the lenses of an expert on ethical matters.  And this crux gives Isabel much food for her musings.

Although these books are mysteries, the focus is more on the ethical and social implications of the various circumstances Isabel ponders.  I find them excellent material for re-examining my own worldview and they challenge me to internally defend my own stance on various contemporary social and political issues.

The characters are very likable; their personalities are well developed.  The plots are always compelling. 

The series is also very culturally rich.  Isabel and her friends frequent the opera and orchestra; they discuss poetry and works of art.  Although I didn't take the time to do so this time, the books often inspire me to read up on some of the composers or musical works,  literary figures or artists who are mentioned.

In The Careful Use of Compliments, Isabel investigates the authenticity of some paintings that have recently come into the market.  She nearly loses her job and faces an ethically tough decision regarding that potential loss.

Although Isabel knows that children do better in two parent homes, she still will not marry Jamie, which does not sit well with me.  I just want to reach in there an twist their conversations to allow each of their true feelings to be addressed.  Because she a woman who is so ethically upright, Isabel is loth to let Jamie know how she feels for fear of making him feel trapped into marrying her.  This is just one example of how her reasoned ethical stances often lead to contradictory ends.

In The Careful Use of Compliments, Isabel and Jamie travel to the Isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides.  And yes, thanks to Mr. McCall Smith's vivid descriptions I now have yet another vacation spot to dream about.  The author makes the landscape come alive for his readers.

It has been a couple of years since I have read one of these books, but in this one Isabel seems to spend more time than in the previous books examining the ideas of big government and social programs, inherited wealth and wealth in general.  George Orwell and his writing of 1984 play a role in this title, as do the disparity of financial background between Isabel and Jamie, and also Isabel's grandfather's money from the oil industry.

Although I don't always come to the same conclusions as Isabel, I always enjoy reading about her and her exploits.  And yes, exploit is not a word Isabel would like me to use regarding her investigations.  She always operates from an ethically well-thought argument.  She holds herself to very high standards within her rational humanist worldview.  She would most certainly never intentionally exploit anyone.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Complete Watercolor Course

Thumbs mostly down.

The Complete Watercolor Course: A comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide to watercolor. By John Raynes, North Light Books 2004.

The title of this work is misleading. I was looking for a thorough catalog of watercolor painting techniques, materials, tools, and examples. But Raynes does not present a complete or comprehensive survey of watercolor techniques. Instead, Raynes focuses on his preferred method of layering washes from lightest to darkest pigments using transparent paints.

Raynes' definition of watercolor would exclude the frescoes of Giotto and many other artists through the ages, including the Lasceaux cave paintings.

The first section of the book focuses on the materials: paints, palates, surfaces, brushes, drawing tools, and other accessories. Raynes includes a brief page on opaque watercolor paints and his reasons for thinking that they are not genuine watercolors.

The following sections lay out the basics of the layered wash, focusing on tonal values and color mixing theory, composition, line and wash; with a look at masks and resists, and four pages on the use of opaque pigments as mixed media.

The rest of the book is divided into short discussions on particular subject matter: still lifes, flowers, animals, skies, landscapes, seascapes, buildings, people, and using photographs.

There are two pages on just a few techniques that are not consistent with the Raynes' preferred layered wash technique with a four page work through example on using them.

The last section focuses on methods for fixing mistakes.

Raynes provides exercises for almost all of the topics he presents. I wasn't satisfied with the examples. And perhaps my dissatisfaction is a matter of personal preference. My preference has less to do with the method and technique Raynes was presenting and more to do with his own personal style in painting. While the author holds Turner as an example he fails to mention Durer, Bol, Abbey, Berryman or many other significant artists in his brief history of watercolor.

So the book fails me on two counts: it is not complete and comprehensive-neither technically or historically, nor do I find the exercises painted by the author attractive. I want to have help on more technique that can help me paint both realism and in the style of the French Impressionists. That's just my personal preference. But Raynes' style reminds me less of Cezanne and more of coarse architectural design watercolor.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking

by Kelli Bronski and Peter Bronski

Thumbs Up

No one wants to be put on a special diet.  Many people like to experiment with gourmet cooking.  If you find yourself in both these camps, this book is a real winner.  Even if you are only in one or the other camp or even neither, the book is chock full of information and would be a good resource if you occasionally cook for a guest who needs such a diet.  If you don't consider yourself a gourmet cook, the book is fun to read through and many of the recipes are not any more technical than any other cookbook.  With the exception of the bread and dessert sections, most of the recipes need no specifically gluten free ingredients to prepare.

From breads to soups to main dishes and desserts, the book is cover to cover a delight to read and stimulates a reader's gustatory and olfactory imagination.  I will certainly be purchasing it for my husband's cooking pleasure.  I do cook, but I generally do not have time to consult recipes at this point in my homemaking career.

My copy is due back at the library, and I haven't even had time to try anything in the book. I can't tempt you with a presentation of my favorite recipe.  But before returning the book,  I will be writing down the recipes for Indian Naan and Italian Gnocchis and Cinnamon rolls for one of the rare days I do feel energy and concentration enough to use a recipe.

I enjoyed perusing the pages and imagining the wonderful taste temptations presented.  The bread and dessert sections are quite extensive.  There are many international dishes.

The sidebars give additional information, both on culinary and cultural terms within the recipes.  The introductory sections give information on gluten free living and shopping and general kitchen skills and tools.

The Bronski's keep a gluten free living blog at No Gluten, No Problem.  It is obvious from the things they've written there that they have spent many man and woman hours in the kitchen, testing their recipes until the result is just right.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Becoming Naomi Leon

by Pam Munoz Ryan

Thumbs Up.

Set in a San Diego area community and also in Oaxaca, Mexico, this book tells the story of two children, Naomi and her brother, Owen, and their great-grandma, Gram. The conflict is the return of the children's unstable mother, Skyla, and Skyla's desire for Naomi to live with her.

Throughout the story, as the title implies, Naomi grows into her name,  finding the lion within herself.  It's a coming of age story, wrought with challenges, tears and triumphs.  Yes, it is a tear jerker.  But beautifully so.  It is not the kind of sob story that leaves a reader feeling dragged down or run over.  It is uplifting and joyful.

The plot is colorful.  I want to use the word sensual to describe it, but only meaning that the writing affects one's senses.  The descriptions are very nicely done so that a reader can see, hear and even smell what the characters are living through.

The characters are true to themselves and very likable. More importantly, the author has imbued them with a nobility of spirit that comes through as the characters deal with some very hard things.

It's always nice when an author is able to pique a reader's interest in new things.  While reading, I had to periodically sit down at the computer to learn more about jacaranda trees and Oaxaca's Noche de Rabanos or Night of the Radishes, for example. 

I especially liked that the author showed kids who did not have everything and were not "cool" in the mainstream sense.  They didn't always like this, and sometimes it made them uncomfortable or even unhappy.  When Skyla entered their lives, she preyed upon their material desires by buying them many new things.  But in the end, it was the love of Gram and other adult role models that pulled them through, not the material things they may have thought they wanted.  When presented with an opportunity, Naomi, Owen and Gram gave generously to those who had more meager possessions than they themselves.  It offers a great value lesson.

Ms Munoz Ryan also wrote the award winning, Esperanza Rising, another great story.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place - Book One: The Mysterious Howling

By Maryrose Wood

Thumbs Up!

Set in England around the year 1850, The Mysterious Howling opens by introducing us to 15 year old Miss Penelope Lumley, a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females.  She is on a journey to interview for her first governess position at the impressive Ashton Place, home of Lord Fredrick and Lady Constance.  After she accepts the position, she discovers that her charges are three young children, Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia, who were raised by wolves.  Lord Fredrick is determined to raise them, much to the chagrin of Lady Constance, because he's the one who found them in the woods and, after all, finders keepers.

The gothic atmosphere, interspersed literary references and a story revolving around three supposed orphans with a mysterious family history, reminded me of A Series of Unfortunate Events.  In fact, I had to check the author's website, just to make sure that Maryrose Wood was not a new incarnation of Lemony Snicket.  (She's not.)  I found this a much gentler read than the Snicket books, if only because I knew that Penelope Lumley is quite competent, and she's genuinely fond of and protective toward the three children.

As the story progresses, the children demonstrate a quick ability to learn while still maintaining some charming primitive habits.  The story builds toward a Christmas party which Lady Constance has painstakingly planned.  She has high expectations for the children, including their learning to dance the schottisch.  Of course, things don't go exactly as Lady Constance had hoped, and by the end we're left with a number of unanswered questions.

This book was just fun to read aloud to the kids.  We enjoyed the silly word formations of the Incorrigibles (for example, they call Miss Lumley 'Lumawoo') and the steady stream of Agatha Swanburne truisms ("That which can be purchased at a shop is easily left in a taxi; that which you carry inside you is difficult, though not impossible, to misplace. ")  Penelope Lumley is a delightful character.  She's bright, no-nonsense, yet partial to the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! series of books.  ("The volume titled Silky Mischief, in which Rainbow's gentle influence saves an ill-tempered pony on a neighboring farm from a gruesome fate, left an especially lasting impression.")

We are greatly anticipating the next volume in the series.

The Best in Tent Camping Wisconsin: A Guide for Car Campers Who Hate RV's, Concrete Slabs and Loud Portable Stereos

By Johnny Molloy

Thumbs Up!

We're trying to ease back into family tent camping, and this book is an excellent start.  I'm already reasonably familiar with the state parks and a few county parks, but I'd also like to check out a few more less-known places.  This book includes more commonly known camping areas, as well as more isolated locales.  Molloy ranks 50 campgrounds (sorted regionally within Wisconsin) based on Beauty, Site Privacy, Site Spaciousness, Quiet, Security and Cleanliness/Upkeep.

He camped in each of the campgrounds, and is able to give an idea of the campground's busyness, available facilities and prices.  (I had the first edition, so the information was based on 2003 data.  I'm sure the costs for many of the facilities can be easily updated on the internet).  He also includes directions and good advice on fishing and canoeing conditions.

What I found especially helpful was the detail Molloy went into on specific features of individual campsites - which ones to avoid, what types of trees are around,  how much privacy, how close the bathrooms are, etc.  That's very handy information for optimizing a family camping trip.

Monday, May 3, 2010

El Lector

by William Durbin

Thumbs up.

Another winner from Mr. Durbin.  I've read nearly all of his children's books and they are wonderful.  Consistent well developed, lovable characters; interesting plots; well-researched historical settings.  I've always learned about some interesting piece of American history while eagerly devouring the story line.  And when I get to the end, I'm always sad to be done.

El Lector is set in Ybor City, Florida, in the Tampa area in 1931.  The citizens in this immigrant community are struggling during the depression to make ends meet,  while dealing with labor union issues and racial segregation and violence.

The title, El Lector, refers to Roberto Garcia, Ybor City's premier lector.  Senor Garcia is hired by the cigar rollers to read to them while they work.  He reads all the great works of fiction, plus newspapers and poetry.  Bella Lorente is his granddaughter and admires him greatly.  She desires to follow in his footsteps as a lector in a cigar factory.

As the plot unfolds, many hard things stymie Bella's pursuit of that goal.   In the end, she doesn't get exactly what she wants.  But due to her ingenuity and boldness, she finds something close that works for her and puts the family in a much more comfortable financial position.  Her perseverance helps her grandfather come to a peace with the modern times.

I really appreciate how Mr. Durbin portrays the Lorente family.  They struggle together through many hardships and although each has his or her own issues to overcome, they are able to mostly keep in good spirits with each other and help each other to grow and mature.  It's uplifting to read about a stable family working together to make difficult things work.

Additional historical tie-ins are references to the Spanish Civil War and the Cuban war for independence.  It would be a good companion read for The Surrender Tree which JennaT reviewed on this blog earlier.