An Aromatic Cook’s Paradise

Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference, by Jill Norman, (DK), 336 pages, release date 5 May, 2015

As my kitchen will attest, I’m an herb and spice enthusiast. My cooking tends not to be subtle, and I’m always looking for interesting flavors that will stand out in a dish. For this reason, Jill Norman’s Herbs & Spices has quickly made a place for itself on my “favorite cooking books” shelf. This book has any number of features that make it enjoyable both to peruse and to use.

• First off, Herbs & Spices is published by DK, the absolute masters of photo-illustrated books. There just aren’t any pages composed of text alone. Each entry is illustrated by multiple pictures of the herb or spice under consideration, showing it in its original form and in the varying forms in which cooks use it.

Herbs & Spices has multiple uses. Besides photos, each entry includes tasting notes, buying and storing suggestions, tips for growing one’s own, and a set of culinary uses.

• Because Herbs & Spices is organized in categories, it’s easy to look for a particular sort of flavor. In the herb section there are chapters for citrus/tart herbs, minty herbs, oniony herbs, and half a dozen others. In the spices section, one finds nutty spices, acidic/fruity spices, pungent spices, and more.

Herbs & Spices has an entire chapter devoted to salt, just the thing for folks like me who can’t resist buying interesting salts or salt samplers, but then don’t know what to do with them.

• One additional pleasure of this book: recipes. The recipe section comes at the edd and is about sixty pages long with two recipes to a page. There are recipes for creating original spice blends, for marinades, for every course, and for using every type of meat—or none. While some of these recipes may be familiar, any number of them will be completely new, even for experiences chefs.

The review copy of this book that I originally received was electronic, but as soon as I’d begun looking it over I put in an order for a print copy at my local independent book shop. Herbs & Spices is a keeper, offering beauty, practicality, innovation, and inspiration between its covers.

Deceptive Simplicity Followed by Revelation

The Travels of Daniel Ascher, by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, translated by Andriana Hunter, (Other Press), 160 pages, release date 26 May, 2015

A recent translation from the French, The Travels of Daniel Ascher reminds me a bit of I Called Him Necktie, one of my favorite books of 2014. The similarity isn’t one of theme. Rather, each of these books seems deceptively simple at the beginning, a pleasant enough read, but perhaps not much more. Then comes the moment of sudden revelation about two thirds of the way through: this isn’t just a good read; it’s a remarkable read. And from that moment on the book becomes un-put-downable. One simultaneously feels compelled to race through it and mourns the fact that its end is approaching page by page.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher focuses on Hélèn, an archaeology student, and her uncle Daniel, a writer of a well-known children’s adventure series. When Hélèn begins her studies, she moves into a small room at the top of the building in which Daniel has his apartment. She’s glad for the room, but uneasy about living this close to her uncle, who she’s always found a bit off-putting: larger than life in a rather childish way, describing his adventures in dramatic fashion as though he were the hero of his own series.

Over time Hélèn begins to realize how little of her uncle’s story she knows, and she begins to question him and other family members. The first revelation is that Daniel was a Jewish boy adopted by a French gentile family during World War II. As Hélèn continues her research, she becomes less and less certain of who her uncle is, as he seems to have two very different life stories.

This is the sort of book one can give one’s self as a gift when a day or a weekend opens up and the lure of “a book and a quiet nook” is irresistible. It can easily be read in a day—or in two evenings—but it will stick with the reader much longer. The Travels of Daniel Ascher balances its mix of family secrets, 20th Century European history, and bibliophilia nicely. The reader wonders; the reader mourns; the reader also enjoys. Keep your eye out for this title and don’t hesitate to pick it up when you cross its path. You’ll be surprised by the richness packed into its 160 pages.

My Favorite Fantasy Novel of the Year

The Nowhere Emporium, by Ross MacKenzie, (Myrick Marketing and Media, LLC), 280 pages, release date 18 May, 2015

The publisher presents The Nowhere Emporium as being written for 8 to 12 year-olds. But I’m in my 50s, and The Nowhere Emporium is one of the most delightful reads I’ve come across in a long time.

Daniel Holmes, an orphan, is recruited as an apprentice to Lucian Silver, the proprietor of the Nowhere Emporium. The Emporium is a storefront, moving about in location and time, that opens into an infinite number of magical rooms. People enter it, are awed, then leave, forgetting all they’ve seen, but retaining the sense of wonder the Emporium inspired. The Emporium is created from a powerful blend of magic and imagination, and the aging Mr. Silver can no longer hold it intact on his own. Can Daniel be trained in time to keep the Empoium whole and  save it from its great enemy?

I find myself comparing this book to the Harry Potter series, something I hadn’t thought I’d ever do, since Rowling’s series is pretty much the sacred text of my reading life. The Nowhere Emporium parallels the Potter books in many ways: the hero is an orphan longing to bring his dead parents back to life; it takes place in a magical setting with moving staircases; it warns of the way that doing wrong to others can rip a soul to pieces. Despite these similarities, The Nowhere Emporium is very much its own creature, not a rehash of another work.

Reading The Nowhere Emporium has got me thinking about the nature of fantasy. One the one hand, by definition fantasy should be infinitely varied. On the other hand, fantasy is populated by recurring motifs. Think of fairy tales—pretty much without exception they focus on a young, lonely, unappreciated or ill-used heroine/hero who must overcome a great evil in order to set the world to rights, and who carves out a magical existence for her/himself in the process. And we—readers, children, humans—have an endless appetite for such tales. One satisfying fantasy tale leaves one hungry for more.

The Nowhere Emporium is such a book, making what could be familiar themes fresh and engaging. Ignore the ages 8 to 12 recommendation and give yourself the pleasure of reading this particular bit of magic.


Love, Death, and 70s Film

Harold and Maude, by Colin Higgins, (Chicago Review Press), 144 pages, release date 1 May, 2015

I’m going to begin by assuming that anyone reading this blog has seen the film Harold and Maude, the happy-tragic story of love between a disaffected teenager and an elderly Holocaust survivor. Really that one-sentence summary doesn’t begin to do the film justice. It’s a tour de force of the unexpected. Just go watch it.

The script for Harold and Maude began began as author Colin Higgins’ MA thesis at UCLA Film School. It wasn’t a hit when the film was first released, but has now become the quintessential “cult classic,” a film that fans will travel hours to see and will watch again and again. This novelization of the script first appeared after the film’s release and is now being reissued by Chicago Review Press.

The novel Harold and Maude is a fast, entertaining read, well worth the time invested. Nonetheless, I think this is one of those rare (to my way of thinking) instances when the film is better than the book. In many ways, the novel is primarily a transcription of the film. The dialogue comes from the film. The minimal descriptive material hints at, but can’t capture the visual impact of the film. Higgins doesn’t make use of this new medium to add to the story in ways only possible in a novel.

That isn’t to say that the novel Harold and Maude isn’t worth reading, just that it’s going to be most enjoyable to those already committed to the film. It won’t add much new, but it does give one time to ponder the bones of dialogue without the distraction of the on-screen images. If you love the film, think about getting this book. If you’ve never seen the film, watch it—and then decide whether you want to think about getting this book.