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China: The Cookbook

Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan. Phaidon, $49.95 (720p) ISBN 978-0-7148-7224-7

Despite their deep knowledge of Chinese cuisine, the Chans at first feared they might not have enough recipes to represent the country’s culinary breadth. That fear was quickly put to rest as the married duo packed over 650 recipes into this hefty and vital resource. Similar to other titles in Phaidon’s immersive national cuisine series (Mexico: The Cookbook, India: The Cookbook, etc), this is a text-heavy tome dedicated to showcasing the country’s most iconic regional dishes as well as tasty variations. Organized by course, the book offers dozens of recipes for familiar recipes (hot and sour soup, vegetable rolls, drunken chicken, etc.) as well as riffs such as deep-fried chicken patties, sweet and sour spare ribs, and duck with onions. This is a book dedicated to practicality: complex, hard-to-source dishes such as pork lungs and apricot kernel soup, goose intestines in soy sauce, and chicken with snow fungus are in the minority. Readers will be surprised that the majority of the book’s recipes are succinct and easy to shop for. Less experienced cooks interested in expanding their repertoires may be intimidated by the book’s lack of descriptions of the finished dishes or recommendations for accompaniments, but those comfortable with Chinese cuisine will find this immersive collection indispensable. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier

Michael Ableman. Chelsea Green, $29.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-60358-602-3

In this insightful, inspiring narrative, Ableman explains that he had been a farmer for 40 years when he decided to attend a meeting of in an urban slum in Vancouver, British Columbia, called Low Track . That meeting and several more resulted in Sole Food Street Farms, which is currently operating four urban farms in downtown Vancouver, Wash. The produce is sold to local restaurants and at farmers’ markets, in addition to stocking some of the city’s food pantries. Ableman says the organization’s goals go beyond simply supplying food. The farms are staffed by local residents—some homeless, some with substance abuse issues—and serve as community hubs. In this mix of memoir and guide, Ableman shares his experiences in farming and operating a social service organization. Navigating regulations, budgeting, wooing investors, dealing with landlords, and training employees are just some of the hurdles Ableman covers, in addition to basic farming techniques. Those interested in starting their own neighborhood or urban garden will deeply appreciate his insight into urban farming’s unique challenges and opportunities. While some might find this a cautionary tale (theft and crime are omnipresent, and an urban setting adds even more complexity to the already challenging task of farming), those serious about embarking on a similar endeavor will find a mix of inspiration and solid advice they’ll want to keep close at hand. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine

Sophie Pinkham. Norton, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-24797-8

Pinkham, who has written on Ukraine for the New Yorker, has a reporter’s incisive eye and gives a rich and fascinating view of post-Soviet Ukrainian life. She studied Russian and volunteered with health groups in college, and, after graduating in the early 2000s, was in search of purpose. She took a job with the Open Society Institute, working on an education and treatment program for drug users to combat the AIDS epidemic. Pinkham eventually moves to Ukraine—a country whose “horse-drawn carts and babushkas survived” alongside newfound wealth and a growing totalitarian state—and falls in love with it. She’s astute in her observations as she takes a close look at Ukraine’s complex history and often hostile relationship with Russia. Pinkham is increasingly aware of the ever-present corruption and growing instability in Ukraine, and she examines the Maidan revolution and Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the continuing war in eastern Ukraine. Pinkham’s look at Ukraine is accessible and comprehensive. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Ethnic American Cooking: Recipes for Living in a New World

Lucy Long. Rowman & Littlefield, $38 (248p) ISBN 978-1-4422-6733-6

This condensed version of 2015’s two-volume Ethnic American Food Today: A Cultural Encyclopedia essentially replicates its source material while magnifying its flaws. Arranged alphabetically by country of immigrant origin , the entries briefly survey the country, its culture, key flavors, and iconic dishes, and provide recipes exemplifying those qualities. That’s a lot to chew on, but Long offers readers only an amuse-bouche. Her dish selections (often sourced from cited third parties; many are repurposed from her previous work) are frustratingly arbitrary. African-Americans have made significant contributions to American cuisine, but merit just a single recipe (pan-roasted collard sprouts), while Croatia and the Netherlands receive three apiece. Italy is a country rich in culinary history with recipes for any given dish often varying from town to town. Here, Long limits herself to just a few paragraphs to cover the cuisine’s influence on America and just two recipes: spaghetti with anchovies and walnuts, and chicken with potatoes and peas. It adds up to a book that raises more questions than it answers. To Long’s credit, she suggests plenty of other works to follow up with should a dish or cuisine spike the reader’s interest (including Ethnic American Food Today), but the larger question of why this digest exists isn’t really answered. The book might be useful in a school or institutional context, but readers hoping for a survey of how countless cultures have influenced American cuisine will be left hungry. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The People’s Money: How China Is Building a Global Currency

Paola Subacchi. Columbia Univ., $35 (256p) ISBN 978-0-231-17346-9

“Money is the game changer of our time,” says economist Subacchi in this accessible introduction to and critique of China’s efforts to strengthen its currency. Drawing on her research and role as director of international research at the Royal College of International Affairs in London, Subacchi lays out the story of the renminbi in intentionally plain language so as to appeal to general readers who are interested in international economics as well as an academic audience. In the first several chapters, Subacchi describes how capital movements have driven China’s transformation in the last 20 years, what it takes for a currency to become “international money,” and the effects of living with a currency that lacks international status. By the middle of the work, she asks the key question: why isn’t China’s renminbi treated as an international currency? She also analyzes Japan’s experience with currency internationalization and discusses the importance of a well-developed financial center with good infrastructure. Subacchi argues for reforms and policies to push the renminbi’s use while acknowledging that China’s ambitions to raise its status as an international currency are still unfulfilled. Given the decision, effective on October 1 2016, to enter the renminbi into the International Monetary Fund’s basket of reserve currencies, this work is a timely , relevant, and fascinating read. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry

Philip Levine. Knopf, $27.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-451-49327-9

The last completed book from the late Levine (News of the World), a former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize–winner, collects original and previously published essays that revolve around artistic development—the poems and poets that shaped Levine’s distinct voice—as well as the circumstances that eventually led to his celebrated vocation. Though there is a chronology to the organization of the chapters , they can just as easily stand on their own as individual works; for example, the final chapter, a reading of Keats and Whitman, reads more like a critical essay than a memoir. Unsurprisingly, Levine’s prose is often poetic, from his earliest recollections of composing poems in the “double dark” to his reminiscence of jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown and his music: “pure, free, clear, as water was in my early years.” Levine writes at one point of how a poem hits first “in the gut” and then in the intellect, and his descriptions of his life, brimming with nostalgia and imagination, operate similarly. Like so many of Levine’s poems, this book evinces a commitment to evoking hard-won experience and bringing it to lyric life . (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East

Patrick Cockburn. Verso, $29.95 (460p) ISBN 978-1784784492

In this sweeping portrait, renowned journalist Cockburn (The Rise of Islamic State) synthesizes the maelstrom of conflicts that have enveloped the Middle East and North Africa since September 11, 2001. The book combines contemporary, on-the-ground dispatches and diaries with incisive retrospective analyses to cover the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, the Taliban’s resurgence, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and the rise of Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) . Cockburn possesses authoritative knowledge of the region’s culture, politics, and history, and his perceptive, pessimistic forecasts have regularly been proven correct . His sober, informed, and insightful analyses are unique and invaluable for navigating the complexity of the region in its “age of chaos and war.” Cockburn attributes much of the region’s turmoil to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 —“the earthquake whose aftershocks we still feel”—which forms the book’s core. He reveals glaring gaps between Western government and media discourse and the reality on the ground; the ignorance, arrogance, and ineptitude of Western powers are common themes. Cockburn’s account of the Arab Spring is limited, but he offers a wealth of insight on the rise of Islamic State as well as fascinating tidbits on journalistic practice and risk assessment in conflict zones. This work is likely to be a reference for future scholars. Cockburn’s dispatches make for a somber, vivid, and gripping work of eyewitness history. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop

Edited by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman. H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, $22.50 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-692-49524-7

The discovery in 2014 of a cache of letters written by H.P. Lovecraft to Zealia Bishop, one of the horror writer’s revision clients, was cause for celebration in the Lovecraft fan and scholar community. This volume combines these new items with other letters, already published in whole or in part, for the most complete record of Lovecraft’s efforts to instruct a pupil in the art of writing salable prose. Lovecraft is ever the gentleman as he encourages Bishop to aspire to literature and avoid the clichéd prose of the popular confession and love stories to which she was inclined . Branney and Leman include abundant illustrations, notably of postcards and brochures of the 1920s and 1930s, that are close to the materials, no longer extant, that Lovecraft often enclosed with his letters. Unlike the uniform letter collections published by Hippocampus Press, this compilation indicates words that Lovecraft crossed out, giving the reader an idea of how he edited himself. In an inspired bit of design, an extract about limiting paragraphs to no more than 300 words, taken from one of the style guides that Lovecraft recommended, appears in a two-page spread of solid prose with no paragraph breaks. For the Lovecraft neophyte wanting to get to know the man through his letters, this is a good place to start. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World

Kim Kyung Ju, trans. from the Korean by Jake Levine. Black Ocean (SPD, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-939568-14-4

In his English-language debut, Korean poet and performance artist Kim calmly renders a world in which inert objects assume human traits, while humans themselves become mere traces. The human characters who populate Kim’s formally varied poems remain eerie and impermanent, detached from their place and time: a “never existed baby” cuts sunshine with scissors, and there are rope-jumpers “with duct tape over their mouths” whose “bodies disappear a little more in the air” every time they leap. Even family members become more body part and clothing item than personality, such as the mother whose decades-old floral underpants stay uncannily fresh “No matter how many people touch them.” In contrast, Kim personifies nonhuman subjects with bodies, feelings, and desires: there’s a well that “develops eyes” and a “long tongue,” and a room that nightly “flies to the outside of space” and proclaims its loneliness, the feeling of which is compared to “the time it takes to understand the music of your body.” Several long poems weave through time and conflate temporal points, lending the collection a feeling of grander scale. Kim leaves his readers with a sense that there are bigger, more permanent things than people. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Pillow Book

Suzanne Buffam. Canarium (SPD, dist.), $14 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-0-9969827-0-2

Buffam (The Irrationalist) records a journey through sleeplessness in this varied, charming collection. Along the way she reveals that, as panaceas for insomnia, “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote lists. Abraham Lincoln took midnight walks. Tallulah Bankhead paid a series of young caddies to hold her hand in the dark, as did Marcel Proust.” Three elements reappear to give structure to the speaker’s nights: stories of her daughter (known only as “Her Majesty”), Sei Shōnagon’s original Pillow Book, and the speaker’s vivid recollections of her psychedelic dreams and imaginings. Shōnagon’s early 11th-century Japanese collection of observations and lists that “have survived the tempestuous centuries” sets the precedent, its own ambiguity allowing Buffam’s work to undulate among poetry, a history of pillows, and family memoir. Lists also break up her musings; instead of counting sheep, she names “Moustaches A to Z.” Beyond their silliness, the lists intimate how the mind cranks after dark. “The Scarlet Pillow. In Search of Lost Pillows. On the Origin of Pillows. Moby Pillow,” the speaker drones, despairing of “ever solving sleep’s riddle.” But there is no solution, only deep scrutiny of everything related to pillows and sleep. Insomniacs and the well-rested alike will feel a kinship as Buffam’s rambling nights coalesce into a beautifully contemplative, deeply personal work. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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