Monday, December 3, 2012

The Kobo eReader

Target Audience: eReader late-bloomers, those who are curious and nervous about technology, or your blind parent/grandparent, who wouldn't be caught dead with a large-print book.

Yep, you read that right, I'm blogging about an eReader. Due to popular demand and the emergence of a new brand, the bookstore I work in has finally started carrying the Kobo eReader. The booksellers are not thrilled about this, but at least this eReader comes to us as an indie-friendly version of Amazon's Kindle. It reads a lot like a Kindle, with eye-comforting ‘eInk’, which is very similar to reading on paper. This is not like reading on your computer or your iPad so it won't give you a headache. The indie-friendly part of it comes from the fact that when you purchase this from our store (or presumably any store) a percentage of your future purchases go to the store you bought it from. The Kobo was designed with independent stores in mind, so that our customers can buy eBooks with our independent store in mind as well.

I took the Koboglo home for a few evenings to test it out for myself. This eReader is black and white and features a frontlight that doesn't glare and makes reading in the dark a special treat. I’m still not a fan of eReaders as a whole, but I really liked this for reading in bed. I tend to read old paperbacks in bed and my reading light is heavy and sometimes flickers. I often give up on reading long before I am tired because the light is so annoying. I know, I know... I could get a different and better reading light, but I haven't, because I have to make stupid things difficult for some reason. The Koboglo is easy to see in the dark, but isn't so bright that it keeps my bedtime neighbor awake. There is no flickering, and once the book is loaded, it's responsive to page turns and bookmarking with no fuss. The light also means that I can get all the way under the covers in a Krysta-cocoon so my nose isn't cold on those chilly Vermont evenings. When I do that with my book light, it tends to fall off my book. Extra bonus: cats do not find eReaders as tasty as paper books.

As much as I enjoyed using the Koboglo at night, I must be an honest bookseller and point out that the Kobo is not the fastest eReader on the block. There were times when I tapped the cover of the book I wanted to read and then waited. And waited. And waited just a bit more. But, just when I thought the eReader had given up on life in general, it snapped out of it and loaded my book. However! Once the book was loaded, there was no waiting. In and out of standby mode took no time at all and when I wanted to pick up the book I got half way through the night before, it was there, waiting for me, with cookies.*

I wouldn't use it for my non-fic books because I do a lot of back and forth reading with those and sometimes underline bits I want to come back to later (or blog about).  I wouldn't recommend this (or any eReader) to people who like to take notes in their books.  While the option is there, it’s not as easy as just writing in a real book.  You can, however, dog-ear pages in the Kobo. (If you’re the kind of insane person who would do such a thing to a real book, then please yes do buy an eReader and stop mangling books. I bet you’re a spine breaker too, aren’t you?)  The final downside of this (or any) eReader, was given by my manager: When you have finished reading, you can not slam an eReader shut in that satisfying way only a book-lover can understand.

I'm now going to take a moment and explain why not all eReaders are created equal. While it's true you might be able to get an Amazon Kindle for maybe a bit cheaper and maybe it's a bit better than the Kobo, in terms of features and speed, there is a key difference that should matter to all readers, regardless of how they feel about buying from local and independent stores. When you pay for an eBook from Amazon, even though you are paying the same amount you would for just about any eReader, you do not own that book. Amazon can (and has) wiped Kindles owned by unsuspecting customers, with no notice or clear reason given. Because, even though the Supreme Court says corporations are people, those corporations are not legally bound to also have souls. Kobo doesn't do that. When you buy an ebook from Kobo, you own it. It's yours. End of story. Just like a real book. So if you're in the market for an eReader, a Kobo is a way to be tech savvy, stay indie, and own what you buy (which is what the cool kids are doing these days).

*Kobo does not provide cookies. As far as I know, no eReader does provide cookies. When they start providing cookies, I will be buying one. For now, I shall continue to beg everyone around me to provide cookies instead.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

Target Audience: Food lovers and cooking enthusiasts. This would also work for someone who likes to read about cultural history and the history of everyday objects (see also: Brilliant by Jane Brox).

I love cookbooks, but I don't think about the ingredients as something that just magically appear in my kitchen.  I go to great lengths to know where my food comes from, who grew it, what went into producing it, and the kind of nourishment it provides. It's no secret that I love reading about food, but before reading Consider The Fork, I never really put much thought into my kitchen tools.  What of the vegetable peeler (which I don't own)? Or the wooden spoon (also don't own)? Or the ever-obvious knife (own many)? Wilson's detailed research changes the way we view all of those items we take for granted. After all, my great-great-great Italian grandmother didn't make her famous pesto in an electric food processor, but I'm not about to give mine up for the job.

Consider the Fork tells the deliciously fascinating history of cooking and culinary tools. From knives to coffee grinders to the kitchen fire itself, readers will relish every moment. Just how long did it take us to invent the vegetable peeler? How different are our whisks from the whisks of the Middle Ages? Consider the Fork takes the reader through the history of how we slice, cook, measure, grind, and mold our food.

The book starts out with the obvious beginning: pots and pans. Wilson explains that hundreds of years of cooking has yet to produce a material that will create a pan that will heat evenly, has non-stick qualities, is cost effective, won’t poison the eater, and is also durable. After years of trials and testing, an engineer named Chuck Lemme decided that cast iron rates highest among all available materials. Since I already have cast iron pans, this is the only chapter that doesn't make me immediately want to go out and buy things for my kitchen. Much.

Consider the Fork runs the risk of costing a small fortune for kitchen worshipers, such as myself. The chapter on knives had me all excited to buy a mezzaluna and a santoku, until I realized that the kitchen knife I use everyday is based on a santoku. The chapter on measuring has me convinced that I need to get digital kitchen scales and that it will solve all of my failures with baking.

The final chapter gives the history and origins of the modern kitchen. The kitchen as we know it did not exist until fairly recently. Before electricity, food was stored in cooler rooms away from the blazing heat of the cooking fire. Not until the fire was contained and the ice box was introduced, did food preparation and storage begin to take place in the same room as the cooking. It's odd to think that the room I consider to be the heart of my home would have been a strange sight just a century ago. Our modern obsession with the perfect kitchen is only possible because of the rich history of food preparation.

As a little bonus, each chapter is paired with an appliance that relates to it. These little sub-chapters are only about a page long and give an abbreviated history of a relevant kitchen tool. The pots and pans chapter ends with rice cookers and the measurement chapter ends with an egg timer. These little sections break up the book and give the reader a fun little history of some of our favorite kitchen objects.

Consider the Fork is also peppered with little illustrations of the tools that Bee refers to. I'm not always a fan of these kinds of pictures in books, because they can break up the text in weird ways and seem unnecessary. That being said, they are wonderful in this book. Annabel Lee depicts the implements Wilson refers to most often, which is necessary when trying to explain the subtle differences between certain kinds of knives and eggbeaters that the reader may have never heard of. Her pictures are simple and not at all distracting, all while capturing the personality of the book perfectly.

I will be bending over backwards to recommend this book to customers all holiday season. It is a must-have for any foodie or cooking enthusiast to savor. It's completely unique and it just came out, so you can be sure the recipient doesn't already own it, but will treasure it immediately as a delightful and juicy account of our kitchens.
Buy it indie!

Monday, November 12, 2012

One Hit Cookbook Wonders

Every now and again, while at work, I'll come across a customer sitting in the cookbook section copying down a recipe from one of our books. Some may take issue with that, but I've never really seen the harm in it. Who wants to buy a cookbook for just one recipe anyway? Oh wait, I would.

I've got tons of cookbooks and I'm constantly talking myself out of buying more. I don't even use cookbooks for 95% of my cooking, but I love the inspiration. I'd be lost without baking books, because although I can make a yummy dinner from a seemingly empty fridge, I can't bake to save my life. The thing about having the whole book, is that if you know one recipe is good, chances are, you'll like most of the others as well.

I've got several cookbooks that I bought, mostly because I love one specific recipe. Vegan Brunch is the biggest offender; I use the Perfect Pancake recipe every week for Pancake Saturdays, a weekly tradition in my home. After purchasing it, I discovered other fantastic recipes in there like English muffins, cocoa raspberry muffins, and Tofu Omelets (trust me) , but oh, man those pancakes turn out perfectly every time. You don't even need any fancy vegan things. I often substitute water for non-dairy milk and you'd never know the difference.

Vegan Soul Kitchen is another one. Well, actually, I use two recipes from that one with regularity. The coconut oil pie crust will come out perfectly no matter what and without tears. My co-workers don't believe me, but I copied down the recipe for some of them, so someday maybe they'll get over the fear of "strange vegan ingredients" and try it out. Truth be told, there are no "strange vegan ingredients" in anything I cook, but I guess even coconut oil is not a regular occurrence in non-vegan pantries. The other favorite from this book is the red rice. Bryant Terry does the most amazing and tasty things with rice, that I would never have thought of on my own. His book can be loved by vegans and non-vegans alike for his whole-food ingredients and his talent for re-thinking the mundane (like rice).

Jo Stepanik's The Uncheese Cookbook is a staple in my kitchen. I originally bought it years ago to help a non-vegan boyfriend come to terms with the loss of cheese whenever I cooked. I don't usually use vegan substitutes for animal products, because they're weird and icky. These are homemade sauces, dips, and blocks that are 100% all natural, because they are home made. You won't find any wacky, hard-to-pronounce ingredients in this book. Best of all, everything in the book can be ready to eat in a pinch. My favorite is the Gooey Grilled Cheese Sandwich or the Macaroni and Cheese Sauce. But the recipe I use most often is actually not a cheese alternative at all, since I still tend to make those only by request of dinner guests, but a pizza dough recipe. The book naturally falls open to that page when I pull it out monthly to make a yummy vegetable pizza.

I'm guilty of writing down recipes from a book I didn't think I'd want later, but my shelves then become cluttered with bits and scraps of paper, and I know I'll never find that awesome recipe for Mexican Chocolate Cupcakes again because I think my cat probably chewed it up while trying to get my attention. And if I can find the recipe again, I won't know what book it came from and which author to trust with my cupcake needs, because I wasn't smart enough to write that information down. I better stop now, because I've made myself hungry. So if you're in the market for a new cookbook, or a new recipe, you could get out a pen and paper in your local bookstore, but you might be missing out on so many other fantastic recipes that you might have found if you brought the book home.

Monday, November 5, 2012

More By I. C. Springman, Illustrated by Brian Lies

Target Audience: The child of a book lover, especially, or any kid, age 1-7ish.

This is one of the best children's books to come out this year.  There are other great kid's books (which I'll try to get up before the holidays), but none that I love so much as this one.

The story is about a magpie that, in the beginning, has nothing.  Its mouse friend gives it a marble and it understands what it means to have something.  Suddenly the magpie wants more.  Just a little more.  Then a lot more.  And then way, way too much.  Luckily the mouse is still there to help.  It's a valuable lesson in a culture where your life's value can seemingly be measured by how much you own, rather than how much you really need.

One of the things I love about this book, is how few words it has.  Most of the story telling is inferred with pictures and left to the imagination.  That paragraph above has more words than the whole book, so it's great for the very little ones, and those just learning to read.  These factors will allow the book to grow with the child.  Kids at different points in their life will get different things from the book, so it's not like a board book that you read to a toddler a few times and then may end up throwing away when the child outgrows it.

The pages are full of all of the things the magpie has collected, like marbles, string, coins, stamps, toys, everything.  There's even a Pink Floyd cassette tape, which is obviously there for the adult reading the book, because the current generation has never seen or heard of a cassette tape (I know this because when I told a girl the only audio book available for the book she wanted as on cassette tape, she had no idea what I was talking about, which lead her mother and I to exchange a "kids these days" look).  Having all of these items adds another layer to the interactivity of reading to a child.  Even if the child can't read, perhaps she can count the marbles?  Maybe he can find all of the purple things?  What kind of coin is that? Where do you think that Lego brick came from?  Someone I sold it to planned to use it with kids with learning disabilities, which again, illustrates its versatility.

You can't talk about a kid's book without also talking about the art.  It is fantastic.  To me, a children's book is just as much art, as it is story, so even if the story is great, the art has got to support it.  Because the art does most of the story-telling in this book, there's even more pressure for it to be great, and illustrator Brian Lies lives up to my completely objective and outrageously-high standards.

I could never recommend a children's book if I didn't think it would be cherished forever, and perhaps saved for future children.  After all, I still own my favorite childhood books.

Buy it indie!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Judging a Book by It's Lover By Lauren Leto

The holiday season is fast approaching, so my next few reviews will feature some books that make great gifts.  I'm going to be honest here and admit that the stuff I usually read doesn't always make the greatest gift.  Only people as insane as myself will appreciate the doom and gloom of Bill McKibben during the holiday season.

Target Audience: Book lovers and wannabe book lovers.

This hilarious book was written for readers.  I loved this book so much I was sad when it ended.  I tried to just read one section a night, to keep it going for a little longer and as little rewards after work., but I ended up finishing it in just a few days after my resolve gave out.  Good books are addicting as anything and impossible to put down.

Leto is a die-hard reader.  She's well-read in everything from classics, to modern classics, to modern garbage.  But this book isn't really about what she's read, so much as it's about things she's learned just by being a reader.  For example, there's a chapter about the proper way to pick someone up in a bookstore.  There's also a chapter about the physical book and how readers should prefer the cheapest, lightest copy.  I disagree with her there, being madly in love with hard cover gift editions that look so lovely on my shelf.  And overflowing onto the floor next to my shelf... oops.

As a bookseller I loved the section on How To Fake It.  She talks about the kinds of people who love certain authors and the stereotypes they fall into.  According to Leto, the kind of woman who reads Philippa  Gregory is one that has a repressed desire to go to the renaissance festival.  Can't really argue with that.  She then summarizes several major authors and their three most famous or important works, so that you can talk about them in conversation, while appearing to have read them.  Since I Fake It repeatedly throughout the day at work, I obviously found this very informative.*  I also discovered that, as someone who loves Hesse, I am required to own one straw chair. Hmm.

My favorite section was not about the books, but the authors.  In the chapter Your Movable Feast, Leto imagines what it would be like to have dinner with some of the most famous author couples.  She's got to start with a bang, so begins by getting drunk with the Fitzgeralds, eating bacon with Krauss and Foer, and then ends up fawning over Franzen, but Faking It with his wife.

I read this book at night, in bed, constantly cracking up and causing my boyfriend to stop his own reading and make me read what had made me laugh, and then explain why it was funny.  I say this not to speak poorly of my boyfriend, who is actually very well read, but to warn of the dangers of buying this book for someone who isn't madly in love with books.  Sure, they'll laugh, but not as much as they could, or should.  It's like taking a non-theatre person to go see [Title of Show].  See, you had no idea what I was talking about.  Just trust me on this.

*Disclaimer: I do not lie at work about what I have read.  I do however, have a knowledge of what many popular books are about and the kinds of people who read them, so I stand by Leto's "Faking It" as an excellent resource for booksellers.

Buy it indie!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Your Local Book Shelter

The used book section where I work is like a no-kill shelter for books.  Customers can take old, unwanted books, that have become too burdensome to continue caring for, to our store.  It's not that
these books are totally unloved, otherwise they may have been thrown away without a second thought.  Instead, our book-loving customers do the right thing and bring these books to us so that we may find them new homes.

When a used book is brought in we do a once-over to make sure it is well-behaved, gets along with the other books, and will be safe to expose to the general public.  If it has had too hard a life, it will
be sent to a local library, where they put the book out at one of their book sales.  From that point we can only hope the book is retired to a quiet home to live out the remainder of its days with an
avid reader.

If the book is deemed fit for our customers it goes out to the sales floor, where we take good care of it until a new owner comes in to claim it.  We're sure to put the books where we think they'll be most likely to find a new home.  For example, we'd never mix history and fiction books, otherwise we know fights would break out.  Jane Eyre and Stalin never could get along.  Where space allows, we also separate hardcovers from paperbacks, so that the youngest don't steal all of the thunder from their elders.  I could tell you countless horror stories about the latest hardcover from Patterson picking fights with old copies of Sherlock Holmes.  Hardcover books can be terrible bullies, especially in Mystery, but they can't be blamed for what is in their nature.

For the most part, we'll look after those books for as long as it
takes for them to find new homes, browsing them ourselves, offering words of encouragement, and giving recommendations.  Sometimes a book will sit on our shelves for so long, we'll spotlight it, we'll offer bargains, and we'll put it right up front.  If even all that fails, after years of loving attention, we either send the book to a library book sale, or donate it to a local cause.  Sometimes it can take up to four years to match a book to its perfect owner.  For books like
Roadside Geology of Alaska, it may take some extra time and attention, but I'm confident an Alaskan geologist will wander into our store any minute now.  The moment of tearful amazement when that happens will be epic: a match that was meant to be.

So when you find yourself browsing your home shelves for something fun to read, don't look upon those older books with guilt.  Understand that you did your best, but sometimes books just don't get as much attention as they need.  Pack them up with care and love, give them a final flip through for goodbye, and then bring them to your local used bookstore. They'll do their best to get them safely and happily to a new home.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Garbology by Edward Humes

Garbology is one of the best environmental books I've ever read, and coming from me that's saying quite a lot.  Not only is the book accessible to anyone, it's also insanely interesting to anyone.  Humes is an excellent writer and journalist.  His statistics and sources are well cited and researched, and always relevant.

The subject of trash is an interesting one and something I've spent a lot of time thinking about.  We all create trash and by putting it in the trash can and setting the trash can on the curb, we believe we are doing our part in protecting the environment by not littering.  But where does it all go?  By sending it away to a dump are we really avoiding litter?  What really constitutes as litter anyway?  More importantly, why do we create so much trash to begin with?

Humes starts the book in the most logical places one can start a book about trash: the dump.  He begins the book by presenting the problem of garbage and the ever-looming question of what to do with it all.  He then gives a detailed and fascinating history of how trash was dealt with before the modern dumps, before we needed empty canyons to fill, because we wasted less, though Humes points out that trash was no less of an issue then as it is now.  He moves on to rogue trash, which doesn't make it to the landfill, and often ends up in the ocean, which has turned into a kind of plastic soup.

The second part of the book is dedicated to the study of trash, garbology.  Humes proposes that knowing we have a problem is not enough, we must get to the cause and the cultural habits behind the problem.  Here he turns to the worlds first garbologist.  Bill Rathje can probably go through your trash and know your household size, age range, income, and personal habits, without ever meeting you.  There's a lot of information out there abut trash, and he is the original trash fact-checker.

A team of people set up a trash tracking system to study where garbage goes after it is discarded and how long it takes to get there.  The results were scary.  Some bits of trash, especially recycled electronics (printer ink cartridges were the worst offenders) were shipped thousands of miles, back and forth across the country for days. Even though these things are being recycled (we hope), the system itself is so wasteful it's better to stick with reducing waste, rather than thinking we're off the hook by recycling.

The final part of the book is dedicated to solutions, from high-tech, large scale solutions, to simple at home solutions.  He gives us the story of Bea Johnson, whose family throw away virtually nothing.  Their households yearly waste can fit into a mason jar.  I thought I was doing well with only a five gallon bucket every  three months, but suddenly I found myself a little jealous.  I tend to agree with the low-tech solutions, mostly because the problem started with an abundance of technology and consumerism.  Personally, I think the best way to solve the problem of over-consumption is to stop consuming, though the thought of a garbage death ray is pretty rad, I must admit.

I've persevered through enough non-fiction to know that it can get rather dry and dull.  I've enjoyed books that I could never call page-turners, however, this book is absolutely a page-turner.  It has a very clear beginning, middle, and end.  In fact, as soon as I finished it, I couldn't wait to share the book with several other people.  I even went as far as calling a bookstore in Sante Fe, to purchase a copy for a friend who lives there.  I'll often mail a book to someone who I know would enjoy it, but I'm not really willing to part with this one permanently.

Buy it indie!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Growing up with banned books

I was lucky enough to come from a family that didn't really believe in censorship, so my mother was always happy to read any books with me, or discuss them, if I showed an interest. She generally let me decide for myself what was too advanced, or too scary for me (I will also mention that watching The Shining all the way through is a right of passage in my family, where scaring the snot out of your kids is just part of raising them properly). When I was about 7 or 8, and just becoming interested in adult books, my mother read me1984, which has been banned repeatedly in schools, libraries, and sometimes entire countries.

What better book is there to teach us about the dangers of censorship and the tragedy of losing our autonomy? I still remember being drawn to the cover of her amazing edition from the 70's (I later lost that copy of the book when I accidentally dropped it in a dumpster years later, while taking out the trash. Apparently I couldn't put it down long enough to leave it in our apartment for even this short trip). Although I didn't understand all of it then, it did give me a healthy distrust of authority. My mother has always been proud of this trait in me, though my teachers, managers, and landlords less so. I'm not saying I would not have learned this trait without the book, but I am saying that had my mother tried to shelter or censor my life and my reading choices, I would not be the strong-willed, independent person I am today.

I'm not recommending that a parent read a 7-year-old anything by Orwell though, because that's completely insane. What I am saying is that it may seem like a small thing to ban someone from one little book, but one book eventually becomes many and then suddenly we've got a case of Fahrenheit 451 on our hands. The very notion of this infuriates me to no extent, because although I am often overcome with a desire to burn Snooki's book, as a book lover and free-spirit, I could never tell someone else what they have a right to read. Who knows, maybe someone could find it inspiring some day. That inspiration may or may not be to stay as far away from self-tanner as possible, but at least something can be gotten from it, right?

I remind myself of that every time I sell a copy of 50 Shades of Grey. Having not read it myself, I couldn't say for sure if it really is worthy of the loathing it gets from bibliophiles everywhere. That being said, I'm still not going to read it. But you can. Who knows, maybe it will inspire you to read something else next time. Actually, there's a lot of forbidden sex in 1984... maybe you'd like celebrate banned book week by picking up a copy of that as well?