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A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community

Sister Simone Campbell with David Gibson. HarperOne, $25.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-06-227354-3

Campbell—activist, attorney, and nun—mixes autobiography with a strong call for justice in this brisk-paced, crisp, inspiring account. Having grown up in a Catholic family in California in the 1960s, college-aged Campbell joined the Sisters of Social Service, an especially "modern" order, whose sisters were very much involved in the world. ("Aren't those the quasi nuns?" asked her mother.) Campbell earned a law degree, first practicing low-income family law, and then taking the helm of NETWORK, a Washington, D.C.-based organization of sisters promoting economic justice. Under Campbell's leadership, NETWORK advocated health care reform, work that garnered censure from the Vatican, which claimed that NETWORK was devoting too much time and energy to social justice. "Well, yes, social justice is what Catholic sisters do," Campbell tartly writes. In order to advance the organization's mission in the wake of this Vatican censure, Campbell and other nuns took a nine-state bus tour, highlighting the struggles of low- and middle-income people. Throughout this account, Campbell writes with wisdom, charity, and backbone. She offers a nuanced position on abortion, and issues a rousing call for Americans become involved in the public square. The volume is marred only by a self-indulgent appendix of rather pedestrian poems. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Playing with Religion in Digital Games

Heidi A. Campbell and Gregory P. Grieve. Indiana Univ., (302p) $85 ISBN 978-0-253-01244-9 $30 trade paper ISBN 978-0-253-01253-1

Scholars have recently begun giving serious attention to digital games instead of seeing them as pop entertainment for young enthusiasts. Campbell and Grieve, media and religious studies professors respectively, show academics studying games as a way of understanding cultures and cultural identities. Many essays begin with the premise that any artistic medium is participating in a culture and its assumptions - so that, for example, a digital game in which a player portrays an American soldier fighting in Iraq is making biased assumptions about a foreign "other." Putting aside the persistent question of whether games are art, the essayists analyze digital games' depictions of religious imagery and theology and consider the implications of how different cultural groups receive and project these ideas. Many of the essayists examine the relationship between the historical and symbolic importance of sacred games/spaces and play as a meaning-making activity. Though some essays are less rigorous and overreach in their observations, this is overall an ambitious and impressive compendium offering intriguing possibilities for further research and theory for the burgeoning field of cultural studies. (May)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Improving Your Soil: A Practical Guide to Soil Management for the Serious Home Gardener

Keith Reid. Firefly Books, $29.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-77085-226-6

Beginning with a broad overview of the subject of soil chemistry, Reid, a soil scientist for more than 30 years, leads the reader through a detailed discussion of the subject at hand. In 13 chapters, the author covers soil analysis, the basics of soil chemistry, soil structure and the implications of both, water and irrigation issues, exploiting biological cycles in service of gardening and the all-important issue of how improve and manage long term fertility in gardens and fields. Also provided is a guide to the warning signs of common soil deficiencies and how to troubleshoot common problems. The main body of the text is accompanied by a short glossary, three appendixes and an index that while not lengthy is sufficient. The author conveys a complex topic in a straightforward and well organized manner, using a clear writing style to good effect. Although this is not a long book, it is a surprisingly complete book, one that avoids both obfuscation and oversimplification. Intended for avid gardeners, it can also stand as an example of how to write popular science books. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Backyard Homestead Book of Building Projects: 76 Useful Things You Can Build to Create Customized Working Spaces and Storage Facilities, Equip the Garden, Store the Harvest, House Your Animals, and Make Practical Outdoor Furniture

Spike Carlsen. Storey, $24.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-61212-085-0

The idea of a "hoop greenhouse" might initially conjure images of a graduated pile of Hula Hoops draped in some expensive plastic. In reality, with PVC pipe, plastic sheeting, a little lumber, and maybe the help of a friend, months of growing season can be added to the year with this simple, reusable hothouse. The flower pot smoker needs a mere hot plate for heat, wood chips, and two large flower pots to provide big flavor on a smaller scale. If sustainable living is desirable, but you don't know where to start, Carlsen, former executive editor of Family Handyman, covers it all, from tool safety to the final product with plenty of instruction and illustrations requiring a day or a weekend. Most projects can be accomplished by the novice woodworker and require few tools beyond those found in the average garage or shed. From drip irrigation systems to the DIY beehive to the more elaborate yard shed, this book may appeal to those who want a sustainable lifestyle, or who just want a backyard project. Who says there's nothing fun left under the sun? (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fresh from the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories

Susie Middleton. Taunton, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-60085-904-5

Writer, cook, cookbook author, farmer, blogger and former editor of Fine Cooking magazine, Middleton, the "Queen of Fresh" tells of her cooking quest in search for a simpler life. Her memoir style book recounts how she quit her corporate job, bought a farm on a rural island, planted a garden, opened a farm stand, and finally found contentment. Witty, engaging prose draws the reader in and 125 simple recipes entice you to get cooking by exploring Middleton's homegrown suggestions. Throughout the book she offers "Cook's Tips" in neat inserts, such as how to properly shell fava beans and how to maintain the right simmer when making paella. Included alongside the recipes in a wide margin is the continuing narrative of raising and selling crops on the island. Part One, "Late Spring and Early Summer," highlights dishes like the ever popular Deviled Eggs—giving the recipe a twist with spinach, basil and pesto—Pan-Seared Filet Mignon with Wilted Chard and Creamy Thyme Pan Sauce, and Grill-Roasted Baby Bok Choy and Creminis with Garlic-Chile-Lime Oil and Spaghetti. Unusual flavor combinations do an excellent job of highlighting the healthy and fresh produce. Part Two, "High Summer," focuses on "tomatoes and green beans and squash-oh my!" with recipes for salsas (Grilled Corn and Roasted Tomato and Pattypan Stir-Fry with Far East Flavors. Last but not least is the section "Indian Summer and Early Fall" which expands to eclectic dishes like Roasted Carrot "Fries" Autumn Pot Roast with Roasted Root Veggie Garnish, and Roasted Brussels Sprouts made with Pomegranate Dressing, Dried Cherries & Toasted Walnuts. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Rebel Chef

Antoine Sicotte. Cardinal Publishing Group (IPS, North American dist.), US$29.95/C$34.95 (176p) ISBN 978-2-920943-70-4

Sicotte's cookbook is, like him, wondrously wild. Originally published in French, it is awash in bold colors, graffiti-like doodles, and lush images of glorious food and intimate moments such as the heavily-tattooed Sicotte and his gorgeous wife reveling in the smell and flavors of the kitchen and Sicotte preparing omelet with his pinch-cheek worthy daughter, Lili. And yet, surprisingly, there's nothing over-the-top about it. A rocker (he co-founded Sky, a now defunct pop-rock group from Montreal) who transformed himself into a successful self-taught chef and TV travel/food host, Sicotte has created recipes that are rich (stroganoff bundles), unpredictable and edgy (caponata polenta, an Italian dish to which he has added sambal oelek, a staple in Malaysian cuisine) and yet, simple enough to actually make at home. Here's a zaniness that some foodies might appreciate: the recipes are classified according to the time that you might actually want to eat them. How does Black and Blue Pasta sound like between 7 p.m. to 12 a.m.? (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods—How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business

Joe Dobrow. Rodale, $27.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-62336-179-2

Marketing executive Dobrow charts the remarkable growth of the natural food industry over the past 15-plus years in this enlightening volume. Having worked with companies such as Fresh Fields, Whole Foods, Balducci's, and Sprouts, he offers valuable insight on how consumer demands evolve and the ways in which organic food producers work to meet these changes. Dobrow introduces key moments and players, combining history and sociology with "biographical memoir, and corporate profile." He explores the influence of widespread critiques chemical agriculture such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and, more recently, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. The author also profiles the forerunners behind particularly successful natural food brands including Mo Siegel, who started Celestial Seasonings in Colorado, Bob Moore who turned Bob's Red Mill "into a $120 million business selling a wide variety of wholesome stone-ground grains, flours, and cereals," among others. Their stories prove interesting and their continued success reflects the increasing popularity of the industry as a whole. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly

Edited by Lee Gutkind and Beth Ann Fennelly. In Fact/Creative Nonfiction (PGW, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-937163-10-5

Dorothy Allison's introduction to this nonfiction anthology about sinful interludes by Southern women may be the best thing about it. In four short pages she explains the pride behind the shame, the Southern story-telling tradition, and provides a lyrical description of sin. Six hundred essays were submitted to Creative Nonfiction magazine, 23 of which were selected for this collection. Most recount personal experiences in memoir-like prose, letting the writer's imagination, by way of first person narration, do most of the sinning. The anthology kicks off with "What Was Left," by Molly Langmuir; if only the mesmerizing quality of her ode to friendship were the norm rather than the exception. While many selections lack the excitement of Langmuir's, several worthy essays deserve mention. In Sheila Raeschild's "Circles of Light," the writer uses her mother's Yiddish slams on bad behavior as the mental backdrop for a long weekend of outrageous sex with a stranger in Miami. New Orleans is the star in "The On-Ramp," Amy Thigpen's exploration of the city's seductiveness. Gail Griffin channels the Brothers Grimm in "Out of the Woods;" the sexism and racism of the time and place turn the local woods into the dark and scary place that was the Medieval forest. Rachael Peckham is a fly on the wall in a golden couple's marriage in the ominous "A Lesson in Merging." (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Sea-God's Herb: Essays & Criticism, 1975-2014

John Domini. Dzanc, $15.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-938103-78-0

Domini (A Tomb on the Periphery), a long-time contributor to everything from the New York Times to the American Book Review, has gathered a selection of his essays and reviews spanning 40 years. Many are freewheeling critiques of hard-to-define books, amounting to "an argument on behalf of latter-day non-traditional storytelling." Domini waxes poetic and philosophical about postmodern novels, movies, even comics, daring readers to find fault with his deep thoughts and complex tangents, and occasionally seeming a little too fond of his own voice when he attempts to turn even a simple review into an intellectual razzle-dazzle. He nevertheless upholds and defends his role as a reviewer and critic, claiming "my analysis strives to discern humane purposes in the book at hand, the way it aspires to art's enhancement while alert to the world's degradations…The more important point is that every critic gets his smart mouth smashed, sooner or later, by core quality." This collection is interesting, even enlightening, for how he examines cultural artifacts—many of which he considers unjustly overlooked and disserviced by modern criticism. In the end, Domini's work is as elusive and mercurial as the subjects he covers: fascinating, but defying casual explanation. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir

Frances Mayes. Crown, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-307-88591-3

Set in the author's "one-mile-square" hometown of Fitzgerald in the backwoods of Georgia, Mayes's (Every Day in Tuscany) latest memoir depicts a childhood of rich meals and drunk, impatient parents—her adoring and violent father and her restless alcoholic mother. Mayes endures their "long night sieges," distracting herself with books and seeking comfort from Willie Bell, the family cook. The portrayal of Willie Bell is refreshingly unromantic, written with candor and respect as Mayes refers to her as an ally, adding "it was not a cozy, member-of-the-family […] thing […] she and I simply knew we were in it together." When Mayes refers to fleeing the South, her reasoning is more tied to ambition than victimhood. Her accounts of high school and college—first at Randolph-Macon, then at University of Florida—are teeming with tales of friendships and eager suitors. Though the prose is dazzling throughout, Mayes's best stories are the early ones. In an especially moving scene, she sits outside in a car while her father dies in the house. Her uncle urges her to come inside, saying "Sugar, you better go in and say good-bye." Readers will not tire of Mayes' splendid imagery. Agent: Peter Ginsberg, Curtis Brown. (Apr.)   The White House: It's Historic Furnishings and First Families Betty C. Monkman Abbeville, $49.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7892-1179-8 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, America's home address, is the subject of this comprehensive and celebratory tome covering more than 200 years of presidential and cultural history told through lavish full-color photography. With an informed eye and a scholarly devotion, Monkman, the White House curator for more than three decades, has assembled an impressive catalog of the art, furniture, china, silver, and other decor of all but one of the First Families that have resided there. (George Washington never slept there.) This second edition updates readers with previously unpublished pictures from the most recent Presidents' tenure including the book's Red Room as it looks today and also the current Oval office where you can see Barack Obama's Resolute desk, the same one used by Presidents Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and G.W. Bush. A rare stereographic portrait of a somber White House draped in mourning cloth from Washington upholsterers on the occasion of President Lincoln's death in April, 1865 is also in the new edition. Along with comprehensive coverage of the public rooms, there's an occasional peak at the private corners. Photos of the Lincoln bedroom, for example, provides a close-up of the elaborate rosewood headboard and gilded canopy of the Lincoln bed. Though Lincoln never slept there, he used the room as an upstairs office; Mrs. Lincoln bought the bed in 1861 for the presidential guest room. Lovers of history or the decorative arts, in particular, will find this book abundantly satisfying, but anyone with a national pride will appreciate and admire their "Family" heirlooms. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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