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My Master Recipes: 165 Recipes to Inspire Confidence in the Kitchen with Dozens of Variations

Patricia Wells. Morrow, $35 (496p) ISBN 978-0-0624-2482-2

In this superb tutorial, Wells (The Provence Cookbook) shares master recipes from her classes to inspire confidence in home cooks. She includes simple techniques such as blanching, steaming, simmering, and poaching that serve as the foundation of her recipes. She advocates for cooking seasonally, substituting honey for sugar whenever possible, replacing butter with olive oil when appropriate, and using organic ingredients (for which she makes a strong case). She also includes a helpful list of essential equipment. Each technique is followed by several recipes utilizing that approach with an occasional side bar on related topics such as parchment paper lids, what to do with leftovers, and trussing poultry. Recipes sometimes include wine pairings, cooking tips, or suggestions for variations. Those who already possess confidence in the kitchen can dive right into the wealth of appealing recipes, likely learning a thing or two along the way. Wells’s chapter on infusing is spectacular, including not only oils and butters but salts, cheeses, and sorbets. Asian chicken and cilantro meatballs, falafel, and mushroom brioche rolls are just a few of the immensely satisfying recipes she includes in this welcome addition to her cookbook repertoire. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The First Mess Cookbook: Vibrant Plant-Based Recipes to Eat Well Through the Seasons

Laura Wright. Avery, $30 (296p) ISBN 978-1-58333-590-1

Canada-based blogger Wright (the title of both book and blog derives from an M.F.K. Fisher quote) captures the spontaneity of online writing in this vegan cookbook. Her encouraging tone pervades recipes such as broccoli Caesar with smoky tempeh bits. Eschewing vegan pastry and topping individual vegetable and bean pot pies with potato crusts is quick thinking. But, as on the Internet, the downside to spontaneity is an occasional lack of factual foundation. The fall/winter stalwarts featured in Wright’s root vegetable dal are seasonally mismatched with cherry tomatoes. If quinoa needs bean puree to impersonate risotto, why not just make risotto? Health claims are hinted at in recipes such as a kale salad with “Master Cleanse” dressing, and Wright dabbles in raw foods, including an unbaked beet velvet slice with a citrus frosting for dessert. A range of dietary concerns (cane-sugar-free, oil-free, etc.) are indicated with symbols, and more time-consuming projects are marked as well. Some recipes would be better off as quick sidebars: Wright provides not one, but two recipes for tea. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Maggie Austin Cake: Artistry and Technique

Maggie Austin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35 (304p) ISBN 978-0-544-76535-1

Looking at the cover of Austin’s beautiful cookbook—an ethereal 10-layer cake of “ombré frills” topped with a tower of edible peonies that even a botanist would think were real—one can guess that the author’s background might have included the ballet. After an injury, she transferred her attention to detail and rigorous discipline from dance to pastry. The experienced pastry chef may have an easier time with these recipes, Austin assures readers that the book is “for anyone trying their hand,” with the suggestion of scaling to one’s experience. She provides basic recipes for cake decorations such as gum paste; the cake recipes include standbys such as carrot and chocolate. Chapters focus on technique: floral applique, painting, sculpted fondant, and more. Full-page photographs entice (a “ribbon-wrapped watercolor” adorns a five-layer cake, and meticulous strands of “pearls” decorate an asymmetrical four-layer that’s ideal for a wedding), but the step-by-step photos are the workhorses. Here, readers are guided through techniques for making bas-relief, gum paste roses, and floral embroidery. Tips and information—including “a cold cake is a happy cake”—are scattered throughout, useful for those without a pastry degree. With the elegant Gold Leaf with Lace Overlay, the whimsical Elephant Caravan cake, and relaxed-looking “Abstract ‘Painting,’ ” the author educates and encourages readers on making tasteful cakes that are sure to wow. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals

Joel Satore. National Geographic, $35 (400p) ISBN 978-1-4262-1777-7

Featuring two-headed turtles, golden langurs glaring into the camera, and eye-catching grasshoppers, this lively collection of color photos of creatures large and small will enthrall even the most casual viewer. Photos of seemingly unrelated species are frequently juxtaposed: pairing the echidna and the platypus, or the Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine and the zebra, creates a striking effect that also shows the connectivity of nature. The portraits are shot with black-and-white backgrounds so that even images of familiar animals demand attention. Included among the gazelles, panthers, and slugs are descriptions and snapshots of the photographing process. The selection is part of a project led by conservationist and National Geographic photographer Satore, who has devoted 25 years to capturing the images of every species held in captivity in order to preserve their images and encourage activism. Satore more than succeeds in his goal to provide people with an opportunity to become aware of these animals, many endangered, before they disappear. Color photos. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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No Friends but the Mountains: Dispatches from the World’s Violent Highlands

Judith Matloff. Basic, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-0-465-09788-3

Determined to discover why violence flourishes in high-altitude areas, war correspondent Matloff (Fragments of a Forgotten War) investigates the cultures and ongoing conflicts of mountain ranges around the globe. She travels more than 72,000 miles to compile her survey, braving the mile-high battlefields of the ongoing Colombian civil war and the deadly Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, witnessing the destitution of the indigenous populations of Nepal and Mexico, and talking her way out of trouble with Russian police in Chechnya. Interviews with American veterans who fought in the high altitudes of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush lead her to visit an Army mountain training center in Vermont’s (relatively small) Green Mountains; this excursion results in an even more intense journey to an Arctic NATO base in Norway. To cap off her journey, she focuses on Switzerland, a largely mountainous nation that outgrew its violent history to become a bastion of democracy and peace. This trip to some very different corners of the globe is recounted in clear, visceral language; vertigo sufferers may not enjoy some of the more harrowing moments, but Matloff’s investigation is a worthy read for foreign affairs and anthropology buffs alike, and her conclusion provides insight into current global affairs. 10 maps. Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: And Other Experiments in Literature

Ben Blatt. Simon & Schuster, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5011-0538-8

In this diverting if lightweight work, statistician Blatt (coauthor of I Don’t Care If We Never Get Back) applies data analysis techniques to the work of hundreds of authors, from Jane Austen to E.L. James, to extract insights into literary art and human psychology. Opening with the dramatic story of 1960s researchers who used word frequency techniques to solve the Federalist Papers’ authorship, the book never follows up on the promise of comparably exciting or substantial findings. Blatt applies his techniques to look at topics such as adverb usage, the relationship between word choice and gender, and trends in writing complexity. After quick, clear, but cursory descriptions of methods, Blatt details creative visualizations (charts and graphs are included) and findings, but limits the conclusions that can be drawn (“Trying to draw too much meaning out of these findings is a bit like reading tea leaves”). This leaves the reader with the feeling of having witnessed engaging parlor tricks instead of scholarly inquiry. But parlor tricks are fun, and so is this book. Blatt provides amiable and intelligent narration, and literature enthusiasts will enjoy the hypotheses he poses and his imaginative methods. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution

Will Englund. Norton, $26.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-393-29208-4

Despite the plethora of books on WWI, Englund, an experienced Moscow-based correspondent for the Washington Post, crafts a novel and persuasive point of entry into the topic, focusing on the pivotal month of March 1917—“the most critical month in Washington since the Civil War.” He structures his narrative history around two primary developments: the lead-up to U.S. involvement in the war in Europe, amid unceasing German submarine warfare and after raucous domestic debate, and the overthrow of czarist autocracy in Russia. Englund alternates between these two primary narratives and deftly interweaves additional stories and anecdotes to provide social, cultural, and political context for this pivotal time. These elements largely center on the U.S.: race relations, labor disputes, music, sports, and more. Englund uses light and compelling storytelling to enliven multiple narratives of select individuals, including then-President Woodrow Wilson, former president Theodore Roosevelt, “professional revolutionary” Leon Trotsky, women suffrage activists, an American banker in Russia witnessing its revolution, and a privileged couple in the Ukraine. Despite the lack of any groundbreaking perspectives or material, Englund delivers a satisfying, well written, and well timed work. Illus. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hollywood Enlists! Propaganda Films of World War II

Ralph Donald. Rowman & Littlefield, $38 (252p) ISBN 978-1-4422-7726-7

Donald (Women in War Films), a mass communications professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, returns to a subject he knows well: war films. This study examines propaganda within Hollywood fiction feature films produced during and related to American involvement in WWII. This specific focus omits documentaries, newsreels, and cartoons. After an opening chapter discussing the relationship between the American government and the film industry, Donald breaks down five “appeals,” categories of Hollywood propaganda. These include the “guilt appeal,” which stressed that the enemy was the aggressor and dragged our peaceful nation into war; the “Satanism appeal,” wherein the enemy is defined through negative, dehumanizing characteristics; the “illusion of victory appeal,” which assures that our victory is predetermined; the “apocalyptic/Biblical appeals,” the former being a direct invocation of the Biblical books of Revelations and Daniel, and the latter a more general “God is on our side” message; and the “territorial appeal,” meant to convince the public that the country itself is at risk. Unfortunately for non-specialists, Donald doesn’t describe the plots of most of the films he covers, and he doesn’t devote much time to most individual titles. The resulting book, despite some intriguing ideas, isn’t ideal for either scholars or general readers. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A History of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom

John Romer. St. Martins/Dunne, $32.50 (672p) ISBN 978-1-250-03013-9

Romer (A History of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 1) continues his magisterial re-examination of ancient Egypt, here covering approximately 2550 B.C.E. until 1770 B.C.E. As in the first volume, Romer cautions against viewing the physical evidence and preserved writings through modern understandings of statecraft and their mechanisms. “Egyptology is not a science,” he writes, advising against using “such common Western terms as ‘king’ and ‘nation,’ ‘soldier,’ ‘courtier,’ and ‘priest’ ” to translate ancient texts. Pointing out where such errors in thinking have previously occurred, Romer describes both the current factual understanding of ancient Egypt and the version created by such scholars as Jean François Champollion and Gaston Maspero. This faux Egypt has too often been cast in a European mold, with autocratic rulers in great cities, heavy taxation, and devastating wars. Romer finds that the evidence does not support these images. Instead, he traces a culture whose efforts were bent toward monument building, systematic ritual sacrifice, and redistribution of foodstuffs in a way that defies modern economic concepts. Romer also rhapsodizes about Egypt’s assorted cultural creations, which fulfilled a different role than modern ideas of art. This is an essential re-envisioning of ancient Egypt. Maps & illus. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World that Can’t See Clearly

Isaac Lidsky. TarcherPerigee, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-14-312957-8

Lidsky, an entrepreneur and former child actor (best known for his role on Saved By the Bell: The New Class) thoughtfully urges a greater appreciation of the world around us, based on his experience of losing his sight between the ages of 13 and 25. “Going blind is the blessing that showed me how to live [with] my eyes wide open,” says Lidsky, who inherited the condition of retinitis pigmentosa. “You must keep a vigilant watch for your self-limiting assumptions,” he counsels. Lidsky took his own advice and ended up graduating from Harvard at age 19, later also earning a Harvard law degree and clerking for the U.S. Supreme Court. He tells readers not to let anyone else determine how they see themselves. Lidsky also discusses the fine line between accepting and surrendering to one’s situation. Woven throughout are “fishing trips,” memorable moments with takeaways; for example, he considers the fragility of plans, first demonstrated when he and his wife Dorothy discovered they were expecting triplets, and then when one of the babies proved to have a potentially fatal heart problem in utero. This master class in counting one’s blessings will stay with readers long after the final page is turned. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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