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Jeffrey Swystun (Toronto & Mont Tremblant)

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Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal
Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal
by Abigail Carroll
Edition: Hardcover
Prix : CDN$ 18.79
41 used & new from CDN$ 2.52

4.0 étoiles sur 5 Food for Thought, July 5 2015
This was an intriguing read. I love social histories and have often wondered how we arrived at the structure of meals we have today. For some time I thought it was due to the changing nature of the family unit and that is true to a point. Author Carroll provides evidence that it was business (agrarian to urban jobs) more than anything that influenced what we now call breakfast, lunch and dinner.

She sets out to prove or bust the popular assumptions about the way we eat. Indeed, she points out that it is are what you eat...but rather...we are how we eat. The book is replete with interesting facts and figures. We make over 200 food decisions a day and are influenced by many things including aromas, menu design, packaging along with the "the depth of a mug, and the radius of a plate." Carroll observes, "Though we spend far less time cooking than previous generations, we spend more time reading, talking, and watching shows about food."

The book is a chronological narrative. It is comes from sound research, is well written and hugely entertaining. The author points out that she first started to write a book on snacking but the research led her to a more holistic telling. That is why one chapter is dedicated to the evolution of the snack. I was surprised to find that the first chapter on Colonial America held my interest more than the others. The evolution of how we dine is rooted here.

Other parts that were fascinating include the ongoing tension between meat and both vegetables and fruit. America has largely favoured meat as the cornerstone of every meal. Once lunch was the hot and significant meals of the day, the movement of the larger repast to the evening established a change in social manners. It became the family meal and improved conversation and intellectual discourse. Evening meals became a highly ritualized event for the one hundred years roughly between 1860 and 1960.

There is much more to enjoy within the pages including the impact of the sandwich, the packaging of breakfast, the growth in portion sizes, vegetarianism (been around longer than one would think), automats, picnics, and cafeterias. Though not exhaustive, the book is comprehensive but teases in some areas that needed more attention. Finally, the author shies away from making any predictions on where we are heading with the exception of suggesting how we conduct business will continue to play the dominant role in how we consume and that screens too will influence the dining experience.

Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews
Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers CA
Prix : CDN$ 11.99

4.0 étoiles sur 5 Grand Forks, Spoons and Knives, July 5 2015
In early 2012 something extraordinary happened in Grand Forks, North Dakota. After a long wait, residents were treated to the opening of their first Olive Garden. For the town of 55,000 that was a big deal. The Grand Forks Herald thought the same and dispatched their 85-year-old columnist, Marilyn Hagerty to provide a review. This is something she had been doing since 1957.

That review went viral. Soon she was attacked online by the jaded and snobby for what is described in Anthony Bourdain's Foreward, as a "guileless" review. That review is included in this book and my summation is it is helpful, fair, quaint but entirely innocuous. It was hardly deserving of such spiteful criticism so it was wonderful when others rose to support her with "an even stronger antisnark backlash". This attention led to TV appearances and a publishing deal. I am so happy this happened for her.

I have a small connection to Grand Forks. Having grown up in Winnipeg, my family would often to travel to Grand Forks (and Fargo) for exotic winter getaways and luxury shopping at Target in the 1970's and 80's. We would often eat at the John Barleycorn restaurant in Columbia Mall (I remember the mall's advertising jingle..."Meet me in Columbia Mall!"). Mrs. Hagerty mentions that dining spot and another I discovered later when I took a date down to Grand Forks for a romantic weekend around 1998 (yes I am cosmopolitan). We visited the Red River Cafe which would subseqently be flooded as would much of Grand Forks by the namesake river. There I had the best sautéed mushroom appetizer I have ever eaten.

So this collection of reviews was a treat to read. Hegarty visits specialty restaurants, chains, fast food and everything else. As she points out, over her career single location restaurants have been pushed out and chains now dominate the food landscape in her fair town. Her column is called Eatbeat and it sets out to tell her readers the basic facts about her dining experience. It is factual and politely conversational. Her prose is sparse and to the point. She often brings pals who she names. Consider the following examples:

- I like the menu. It's varied. It's clever. And it's easy to read.

- It's fun sitting in a place where truck drivers mingle as they wait for a load of potatoes to carry south, or east.

- On my second visit to Red Lobster, I met Gladys Keig for lunch. We both ordered soup and Caesar salad.

- We were glad we approached Applebee's at 5 P.M. for supper rather than waiting until 6 P.M. By then it was buzzing, and people were waiting for tables.

- I ordered the walleye ($7.25), the reason why many people go to the Ramada.

You may have gleamed from these charming, small town snippets that Hegarty often reviews the same restaurants, that truck stops to hotel dining are included, and that chains most of us find unworthy of a review get her same treatment. Reviews include those for the Chuck House Ranch Restaurant in the Westward Ho Motel, Sonja's Hus in the Regency Inn, the Tomahawk Cafe, Big Sioux Truck Stop Cafe, Big Al's Pasta Parlor, Red Lobster, Quizno's, Stormy Sledster's, Great Wall Buffet, and KFC. Perhaps my favourites were her review of the East Side Dairy Queen and the Royal Fork Buffet. I once experienced the latter and consider Hegarty's review as generous as the portion sizes you could serve yourself.

To be a bit snarky, it is ambitious to call this "A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews" but it is definitely great source material for such a history. And it is gratifying to see a woman who worked diligently and accurately for both restaurant and patrons to receive this attention and acclaim. Finally, could the town's name not fit better for such a book?

Finders Keepers: A Novel
Finders Keepers: A Novel
by Stephen King
Edition: Hardcover
Prix : CDN$ 23.93
35 used & new from CDN$ 22.14

2.0 étoiles sur 5 Literary Fast Food, July 5 2015
Ce commentaire est de: Finders Keepers: A Novel (Hardcover)
I said the same thing about Mr. Mercedes, if the author was not Stephen King, would everyone be so effusive about this book and its series? To be blunt, these are more James Patterson than Mr. King. The characters are comic book one dimensional whereas in the standout King novels we are treated to more fulsome treatments of who people are and why they do what they do. Suspense lacks here and predictability prevails.

What maintains my interest is the continuing focus on Brady Hartsfield, the villain from Mr. Mercedes. He is genuinely interesting and evil unlike the bad guy in Finders Keepers who is more dime store hood. Accompanying Brady are hints at something more malevolent and that is the space where Stephen King shines. I plan to read the reviews of the third outing closely and will not blindly buy it because King's name is on it.

King himself said that he is "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." This series is definitely fast food. Bland, predictable, ultimately forgettable but strangely comforting. I believe it is the latter that has skewed real critiques of the book.

What We've Lost Is Nothing: A Novel
What We've Lost Is Nothing: A Novel
by Rachel Louise Snyder
Edition: Hardcover
Prix : CDN$ 18.17
35 used & new from CDN$ 3.24

2.0 étoiles sur 5 There Goes the Neighbourhood, July 1 2015
The best part of this novel comes at its end. I am not being flippant about wanting it over. I truly mean that the most impactful aspect came in the last 25 pages. The daylight burglaries and subsequent reactions of the victims that claim to be the whole plot are a 300 page feint.

The bits about racism and the borders of class-defined neighbourhoods are interesting. The families who comprise the homes are well imagined. However, none made me care about them making this a difficult book to commit to and enjoy. They were wooden and certain actions they took unbelievable. The author's attempt to build tension and suspicion also never worked.

The superlatives in the book's promotion are wildly overstated, such as, "Tour de force"' "incisive", and "panoramic". This brings me to those last 25 pages. They contained the biggest shock and perhaps the only insight that would be a major spoiler so I will hold my tongue. My last comment is, this story is mighty bleak. With all of the darkness there is not enough redemption to make this a pleasant read. Which is too bad because suburbia has been a rich vein for writers since Cheever.

Modern Warfare, Intelligence and Deterrence: The Technologies That Are Transforming Them
Modern Warfare, Intelligence and Deterrence: The Technologies That Are Transforming Them
by Benjamin Sutherland
Edition: Hardcover
8 used & new from CDN$ 159.60

3.0 étoiles sur 5 Modern Response to Ancient Problems, June 30 2015
This collection of articles from The Economist was first published in 2011. The content is drawn over the few years previous so is heavily influenced by terrorism and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Overall, it is fulsome review of the current workings and future capabilities in warfare and intelligence. If anything has permeated the public's consciousness regarding modern warfare it is the use of drones and cyber warfare. The news is replete with mentions of these but there is so much more going on, including:

- wearable systems within combat uniforms that gather intelligence
- actual ray guns that detonate unexploded ordnance
- military bases on the ocean that fit together and come apart based on need
- liquid armour that arranges itself at point of impact
- using rubber that steel tracks on military vehicles to reduce wear and tear
- smaller and more accurate munitions

What makes the investment in these technologies so amazing is they are a responses to unsophisticated enemy tactics. RPGs, IEDs, and AK47s have inflicted the most casualties on Western nation forces in past 15 years, yet the response resembles the fodder of Buck Rogers, Star Trek and Star Wars.

Still it is the 'ground pounders' that turn the tide in most battles and they need help. That is why the topic of camouflage resonates. Software now designs patterns "that incorporates neuroscientists' understanding of human vision." These take into account reflective and light-absorbing properties for most conditions. The Canadian Armed Forces Canadian Temperate Weight digital camouflage pattern, or CADPAT was first introduced in 1996, this pattern is often called "relish." It employs small squares of colour or pixels deemed harder to see. This did not stop the critique of Canada's initial deployment of troops to Afghanistan in this highly green battle dress given the beige environment they fought in. Since that time, Canada has improved the pattern so that "observers must be 40% closer than they would have to have been in 2000."

The subjects within "Munitions of the mind" or psychological warfare has the goal of getting the enemy to surrender and reduce casualties. Von Clausewitz put this as, "compel our enemy to do our will." This leads the book to military intelligence and the desire to make every soldier a sensor that not only kills and conquers but gathers information at every turn. Then this work turns to spy craft. As the book states, "The net is closing around old-fashioned secret-service methods."

Historians have pointed out that so many of the technological advances society enjoys are due to wars. Military conflicts result in significant investments. One of the more instructive articles in the book covers how militaries are now learning from and employing technologies from business. What we call social media has lessons for how terrorist cells are organized and operate.

For centuries, military theorists and professionals have pursued "more brain, less brawn". History shows that even the smartest plays can be trumped by passion and persistence (remember Vietnam). Even with all of this neat gadgetry, there is vulnerability that the most modern nations cannot overcome and it has proven itself in the committed suicide bomber, the ubiquitous AK-47, and the sinister improvised explosive device.

Bomb Canada and Other Unkind Remarks in the American Media
Bomb Canada and Other Unkind Remarks in the American Media
by Chantal Allan
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 23.70
8 used & new from CDN$ 23.70

4.0 étoiles sur 5 Let No Man Put Asunder, June 28 2015
"Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder." So said John Kennedy about America and Canada. Author Allan does an interesting job proving that many through the centuries tried to rip that bond asunder. These are politicians and media on both sides of the border.

This short history with compelling premise, chronicles two centuries of media flash points. It begins with Canada's refusal to join the American Revolution, escaped slaves, Fenians, Louis Riel, the Reciprocity Treaty of 1911, refusal to embargo Cuba, Trudeaumania, the daring Canadian rescue of US diplomats from 1979 Tehran, 9/11, mad cow and climate change. As a Canadian, nothing surprised me about the content until it hit this century. Some of the commentary from US media regarding our stance on Iraq is so unfortunate for them now that events have played out. America's media was asleep or overly patriotic when it came to America's foreign and military policy in the wake of 9/11.

At the end, one can only conclude that ignorance was at the root of the vitriol and bad blood between the two countries. Thankfully, it has always led to kissing and making up. The squabbles have largely been more smoke than fire. This does not mean the differences between the two nations and their peoples are not significant. It means we find through time, dialogue and rationality a way to do much more than just co-exist.

The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown: A Novel
The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown: A Novel
Offered by Simon & Schuster Canada, Inc.
Prix : CDN$ 19.99

3.0 étoiles sur 5 Read the Prerequisites, June 28 2015
Malmont establishes a fun premise. A group of pulp/scifi authors are assembled to help defeat the Axis powers during WW2. These include Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard, DeCamp and others. They are instructed to help realize the amazing weapons they have envisioned in their stories. I was caught up in it from the start but soon felt too much like an outsider owing to the author's detailed references. Unlike Chabon's Kavalier and Clay, I was not invited in to learn more. Rather, I felt more and more excluded with each page. Plus it dragged on so those pages became heavy. For some this will be an absolute treat so I do not want to be was simply not my cup of tea.

Reconstructing Amelia: A Novel
Reconstructing Amelia: A Novel
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers CA
Prix : CDN$ 11.99

2.0 étoiles sur 5 Voyeuristic Lite, June 25 2015
As soon as the marketers splash, 'This Year's Gone Girl', on the cover one must be cautious. The comparison is only valid in that McCreight uses devices to shoot back and forth in time as we saw in Gone Girl with diary entries. In this case, the story revolves around the death of a teen so we are treated to texts, blogs, Facebook posts, and e-mails. Adults cannot seem to get the tone, language and ambiguity of the teen voice right. Only this next generation who grew up on phones and keyboards will come close. Helen Schulman similarity fell short when she took up a plot based on a teen nude selfie in This Beautiful Life.

Certainly, it is noble to try but the issue with Reconstructing Amelia is not inauthenticity but voyeurism. The book involves bullying, hazing, copious amounts of teen sex including lesbianism, adult infidelity, materialism, petty jealousies, developmental issues, family-of-origin challenges, and the kitchen sink, so to speak. In the end, it is tawdry not gripping or intriguing. The adults are children and the children are entirely unappealing or redeeming. In the end, I wondered who the intended audience was for the book and can only conclude...a movie studio executive.

Den of Thieves
Den of Thieves
by James B. Stewart
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 15.87
82 used & new from CDN$ 0.72

5.0 étoiles sur 5 History Repeats, June 22 2015
Ce commentaire est de: Den of Thieves (Paperback)
It was interesting to return to this book over twenty years after first reading it. For some reason I consumed the many tales of greed that were published at the time...Barbarians at the Gate, Mr. Diamond, Liar's Poker. A decade later there was the spate of books on Enron, Tyco, ADM. A few short years after that it would be the financial crisis that produced written works to explain the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and others. And let's not forget the Madoff saga.

Author Stewart asks in his Epilogue, could something similar to the Boesky, Levine, Seigel, and Milken insider trading ever happen again. The events mentioned above certainly indicate so. History repeats itself because greed always exists. Still, it is amazing at the dollar values that were involved back then along with the hubris and shock when these dealings were exposed. This is a brilliantly researched and written cautionary tale that many refused to heed.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Breakfast at Tiffany's
by Truman Capote
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 12.27
74 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 étoiles sur 5 "One day she just kept on.", June 22 2015
Ce commentaire est de: Breakfast at Tiffany's (Paperback)
It took me fifty years to get around to reading this classic. I now look forward to rereading it. The prose is both dense and sparse. Each word is carefully chosen and strung together to form amazing passages. Here are a few favourites...

- "What I found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name."

- "She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty, if only because it contains paradox. In this case, as opposed to the scrupulous method of plain good taste and scientific grooming, the trick had been worked by exaggerating defects; she'd made them ornamental by admitting them boldly."

- “I loved her enough to forget myself, my self pitying despairs, and be content that something she thought happy was going to happen.”

- "Reading dreams. That's what started her walking down the road. Every day she'd walk a little further: a mile, and come home. Two miles, and come home. One day she just kept on.”

The book is more direct and grittier than the impression formed by the movie which is such a dominant piece of (pop) culture. I believe Audrey Hepburn was miscast. Holly Golightly is an 'American Geisha' and like anyone who plies that trade tends to fool themselves about the profession while developing a hard, near jaded personality.

In Capote's own words, "Holly Golightly was not precisely a call girl. She had no job, but accompanied expense-account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obligated to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewelry or a check …if she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night. So these girls are the authentic American geishas, and they're much more prevalent now than in 1943 or 1944, which was Holly's era."

Her character is on a quest to find a home that feels...well, like home, before it is too late. Holly's wandering spirit will either be rewarded or punished. It is up to each reader to decide the outcome. Lastly, it worth pointing out again the quality of writing. The novella's prose style prompted Norman Mailer to call Capote "the most perfect writer of my generation," adding that he "would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's".

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