Food Book Feast — Reviews From February 5th – February 9th, 2018

Here’s what we covered on Food Book Feast this past week…

America the Great CookbookIn America: The Great Cookbook, food writer Joe Yonan pulls together over a hundred recipes from chefs, restaurants, food producers, writers, and blogger from across the US for a really fun collection of current American recipes.

Orange AppealOranges aren’t just for juice and marmalade. In Orange Appeal, author Jamie Schler cooks sweet and savoury dishes with everyone’s favourite citrus fruit.

(more…)

Read More

Food Book Feast — January 29th – February 2nd, 2018

In case you’ve missed the fact that I’ve got a great new project in the works, here are links to all the books I’ve been covering over on Food Book Feast for the week of January 29th – February 2nd.

Cover of Small BitesSmall Bites: Skewers, Sliders and Other Party Eats by Eliza Cross offers a selection of party snacks and finger food.

Cover of Fan FareFan Fare: Game Day Recipes for Delicious Finger Food, Drinks and More by Kate McMillan is a little more casual in its offerings, with lots of food to be shared while watching a game or maybe an awards show.

Cover of Culinary Bro-DownThe Culinary Bro-Down Cookbook by Josh Scherer is pretty bro-dudey, but still has some great BBQ and party recipes.

(more…)

Read More

Hug the Dog, Plus Other Thoughts on Seasonal Affective Disorder

I’m sitting in front of the HappyLight waiting for the giddy to kick in. Okay, it’s not exactly a feeling of giddiness and there’s not a switch that gets flipped to take you from obviously sad to blatantly happy, but after the fact, after I’ve sat here for 30 or 40 minutes with this light shining in my eyes, there can be a sense of mild euphoria that is both disconcerting and pleasing after feeling so dark.

To keep a sense of balance, I really need to sit with this thing every day. Skipping a day ultimately results in a funk. It’s not addictive, but I miss it when it’s not there.

The SAD has been worse for me this year than I can ever remember and it’s only the beginning of February. It was late in coming; early January instead of November, and I thought briefly that this might be one of those years when I escaped its clutches. Maybe I got enough Vitamin D from being out in the sun all summer — there have been years where that actually did happen. But it hit like a truck during the first week of January when both Greg and I came down with that terrible flu that has been going around. My case was surprisingly mild (a rarity for a person who gets colds that leave her with 10-week bouts of laryngitis), but it was bad enough that I felt like crap long after the fever and the coughing had stopped.

(more…)

Read More

Best Non-Fiction of 2017

There was less non-fiction in my 2017 reading list, but so much of it was incredibly inspiring, and I really had trouble coming up with my favourites, although #1 and #2 just blew me away.

1. Les Parisiennes
Anne Sebba
This is a wholly comprehensive look at Parisienne women during WW2. Edith Piaf, for instance, worked with the Germans so she could smuggle identity papers into concentration camps. Other women hid or smuggled Jews, catalogued stolen artwork, worked as spies, and spread resistance notices. Many women, like Colette, tried to ignore the whole thing, while some, like Chanel, thought their best bet was to collaborate. Masterfully researched, the book covers so many people it can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it does astound with the bravery and courage these women exhibited in the face of rape, torture, concentration camps, and death.

2. Hannah’s Dress: Berlin 1904 – 2014
Pascale Hugues
I LOVED the premise of this book, which is not about a dress, but rather a small street and its history. The author, a French ex-pat, researches her street in Berlin, tracking down and telling the stories of some of the many people who lived there, including the descendants of some of the well-to-do Jews (lawyers, doctors) who fled or who were killed by the Nazis. She finds some German families too, with their own tales of woe, and even some recent neighbours (like Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, who hosted David Bowie in his flat during the 70s). The book falters in the translation, which is clunky in parts, and when Hugues is telling her own story about the present-day changes to the street, she often comes across as weirdly judgmental but this could also be a translation issue. Nonetheless, a really cool book that is worth a read.

3. We Were Feminists Once: From Riotgrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
Andi Zeisler
If everything is empowering to women, then nothing is actually empowering. Zeisler looks at the commodification of feminism and how it’s become just another way to sell things to women (while mostly still making us feel bad about ourselves). Read this, think about your choices, and understand both how you’re being marketed to and how to avoid it. Also, is “empowerment” just a pink, glittery, watered-down, inoffensive term for personal “power”? 

(more…)

Read More

Best Fiction of 2017

Last year, I managed to read 111 books. It was actually closer to 120 but there were a few I didn’t include on my big list, either for personal reasons (self-help or psychology books), or because I bailed less than halfway through. But I wanted to take a look back at my favourite titles and compile a Top 10. So here are my 10 favourite fiction books from 2017…

1. The Lonely Hearts Hotel
Heather O’Neill
This was perhaps the most breathtaking book I’ve read all year. It had gangsters, nightclubs, masochistic nuns, millionaires, twists of fate, junkies, rollerskating, imaginary bears, bejeweled apples, a pair of young star-crossed lovers and… clowns. A dark, gritty story about a pair of children who meet in an orphanage and discover they have special talents, who are then parted and have to find each other again. O’Neill’s descriptions are gorgeously vivid, her metaphors like bits of poetry. Her female protagonist Rose kicks ass throughout the whole story, and I love that O’Neill has made her so strong, such a great survivor. I so want to see this made into a film.

2. The Napoli Novels
Elena Ferrante
Counting these (as one entry) because I read 2 of the 4 in 2017. They’re fighting with The Lonely Hearts Hotel for 1st place, honestly. 
Read full review.

3. Men Walking On Water
Emily Schulz
An exquisitely woven story about Detroit-Windsor rumrunners near the end of prohibition. Schulz offers robust character development, a logical yet intricate plot, and a well-written, well-researched novel. Great flow makes it a quick read, even at over 500 pages.

(more…)

Read More

The Long Road to the Pot of Gold

When I came up with the idea to write a book about the Halifax Explosion, back in 2004, I didn’t think it would be a 13-year journey. The bulk of the writing was done in ’04-’05, but just as I was getting ready to send the manuscript out to agents, I took a header on the front walk and ended up with a broken arm. By the time I had healed I was working on two different food-writing gigs and so set the MS aside. I had been advised by a friend within the publishing industry to get my name out there by doing some other writing, that it would be an encouragement to potential publishers, so I did that.

Fast forward to 2014 or so, and after writing a different book, editing a collection of other people’s writing, and generally writing about the Toronto food scene for a decade, I thought it might be time to dust off Pot of Gold. I had always thought to publish it closer to the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is an anchoring event within the plot, and so, after a few more drafts (making the final version maybe the 10th draft overall) I sent it out into the world. 

Except the timing of the mainstream publishing industry is slow like a molasses-covered turtle, and with each agent taking months to reply/reject, by the beginning of 2017, I realized that it wouldn’t get published in time unless I did it myself. Which is never ideal because there’s no promotion, it’s not on store shelves… but the explosion is such a major part of the book — even though the bulk of the story is set more than a decade later — and I really want to acknowledge what was, for me, a big part of my childhood, and something that I think every Haligonian has as part of their own family history in some way. So even if I don’t sell a single copy, at least I know I did it and that it’s out there, as my tribute to the city I grew up in and the people who lived and died during this devastating event.

Over the years I have read every single book published about the explosion, it’s a topic of fascination still. There are a number of non-fiction works that delve into minute detail of the events of December 6th, and in recent years the number of fiction titles has grown as well, adding different voices and points of view to the two “classic” (tired, cliched, misogynistic) titles that for years were the only works of fiction about the subject.

I hope that, some day, Pot of Gold stands proudly with those other works as yet another voice, another point of view, about the horrific events that destroyed the lives of so many innocent people.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, I have included the relevant chapter here for free. While the rest of the novel takes place between 1929 and 1945, the prologue and the explosion establish the characters, their relationships, and many aspects of their lives.

Please visit the Pot of Gold book page to read the prologue.

Read More

Book Review – The Theoretical Foot

The Theoretical Foot
M.F.K. Fisher

So when an unpublished book by your favourite writer ever is discovered and published, you’re kind of excited, right? When I finally got my hands on a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Theoretical Foot, I was almost shaking with anticipation. And then…

There’s a reason why Fisher’s novel was never published in her lifetime, A few in fact. First was that she based all the characters on real people (it’s quite close to being autobiographical), and people featured in the book found it to be mean-spirited and harsh. Second was that, sadly, it’s just not very good.

(more…)

Read More

Book Review – Lily and the Octopus

Lily and the Octopus
Steven Rowley

Yes, a novel about a dog always results in the dog dying. That’s the Murphy’s Law of novels about dogs. In this case, Lily the dachshund is dying from the octopus on her head. So named because her owner Ted can’t bring himself to say the word tumour. But Lily is 12, has never been in great health, and the sad fact of life is that we usually outlive our pets.

Ted is having none of this however and part of his brain is convinced that if he just ignores the tumour, all will be well. Except of course, it isn’t and Ted eventually has to confront many things about his life, especially the fact that his dog has replaced most human interaction in his life (on Thursday Ted and Lily talk about cute boys, on Fridays they play Monopoly), and that as a single, freelance writer, still recovering from the end of a serious relationship, he doesn’t get out much.

(more…)

Read More

Just Say No to Fashion Mags

This started as a book review of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano.

And, I admit it – before I write a book review, I usually head over to GoodReads to see what other people thought of it. Not to crib their thoughts but to get a general consensus of things. What I found for Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s book on the beauty industry and the impact it has on women and their self-esteem was pretty much what I thought of the book when I was done.

Discussing cosmetics, selfies, ad campaigns. self- esteem and the marketing of cosmetics to men, Face Value wants to be an informative read on the industry. But it’s a bit all over the place and never really commits to one path or point of view.

Given that Whitefield-Madrano has worked for years at various fashion mags, I guess it was optimistic of me to hope for a call to just stop buying into the manipulation, but that didn’t happen.

So I’m gonna do it myself.

Sorry, writer friends, journalists, and anybody who still works in an ad-driven media industry writing about fashion, cosmetics or lifestyle, but the honest to God best way to stop feeling bad about how we look is to…

STOP BUYING MAGAZINES

(more…)

Read More

Book Review – This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism
Ashton Applewhite

Somewhere around the age of 40, I began to refer to myself as “old”. I was working in an industry (food writing) that was beginning to skew younger and younger and I unconsciously began using “old” to differentiate myself. I’ve also used “old” when trying to explain my involvement in the alternative music sub-culture; sometimes it’s just easier to tell a (young) mainstream person that I’m “an old punk” as opposed to trying to explain the growth of the early 80’s post-punk music scene (and all of its different offshoots) into Goth and Industrial music as an identifier for who I am, all while trying to make it clear that I’m not a Green Day fan.

Heck, the tag line for this website is even “Cranky Old Broad About Town”.

(more…)

Read More

Paris Is Burning, Clara Bow, and Zelda Fitzgerald – Musings, Monday, February 27, 2017

A still from the lost reels of Get Your Man.

Bear with while I try something new.

Nowadays, so many people start blogs and then abandon them because they feel they have nothing to say. Even if we’re blogging about a popular subject such as food, odds are someone’s already said it before. That recipe, that interview, that perfect Instagrammable shot – they’re all already out there, so why bother?

But what about if blogging went back to a form of journaling? You know, like how we all started with LiveJournal some 15 years ago. I know what you’re thinking – because I didn’t really care about reading other people’s journals back then either. But some people do. There are writers, Alan Bennett for instance, who have made a hugely successful career simply by publishing their daily diaries in book form. I’ll confess that I don’t find Bennett especially scintillating, but I get the point of his work and of his desire to publicly document his life.

(more…)

Read More

Rebel, Rebel, Rebel – Three Books on Fashion’s Rebellious Style Icons

What makes someone a fashion rebel? Is it about bucking trends to find a personal style, dressing in really out-there, head-turning garments, or about doing everything that rock stars do in terms of getting dressed?

While surfing Amazon lately, I came across three titles that purported to be about rebel fashion. Two of them ended up being books intended for kids, and none of them really came close to what I was expecting in terms of rebellious fashion icons or rebellious style in general. (I think Michelle Obama is awesome, and definitely is/was a fashion icon for this generation, but I don’t think her style of mixing high- and low-end garments to be particularly “rebellious”).

In any case, the first two titles would be good books for kids with an interest in fashion who want to learn more about personal style and fashion history. I’m still not sure what to make of the third one.

Bad Girls of Fashion
Jennifer Croll, illustrated by Ada Buchholc

This collections of style icons is geared towards young, middle school readers, and does a decent job of explaining their individual styles and influences on fashion through the ages from Roman times to modern day. The illustrations are truly fabulous but I’d love more of them. The writing style is simple and straightforward and gives a clear explanation of each person featured without talking down to its intended (young) reader. Unfortunately, the layout is weirdly confusing with chapters on the greater influencers being broken up with shorter pages or sections about other (sometimes) related stylish women. This makes for disjointed reading. Croll also steps away, possibly intentionally, from discussing cultural appropriation, such as how Cleopatra has always been portrayed in Hollywood by white women, or how Madonna made Hindi style cool for the pop culture masses. Points for forthrightness about gender issues with the inclusion of George Sand and Kathleen Hanna, and also points for including some fairly subversive and not well known characters like Rose Bertin and Beth Ditto.

(more…)

Read More

She Ain’t So Sweet: Book Review – Rejected Princesses

Rejected Princesses
Jason Porath

The premise – all the women in history who would never in a million years have a Disney movie made about their (real) life exploits. The gals whose work was ignored, overlooked or stolen, or those ladies who kicked ass, fought tooth and nail and severed some heads. You know, like Boudica or Elizabeth Bathory.

Porath does extensive research on each woman he covers, and he manages to find historical women from all over the globe. Each entry includes a graphic (the project started when he was an animator at DreamWorks), a fun and witty bio of the gal’s exploits, and some entries include notes on the artwork (ie. why Boudica is dressed that way, who are the people in the background, etc).

While Rejected Princess might seem like an inspirational book for girls, readers should be forewarned, these ladies would never get the “princess treatment” (have a blockbuster movie made about their life) for a reason. Many of them are inspiration but maybe kind of boring (Ada Lovelace), and some of them are just straight up evil (Elizabeth Bathory… but wait, Porath reveals that she probably wasn’t as evil as she’s been made out to be.) Porath is good enough to give each entry a maturity rating, so if you are reading this book with your kids, you can choose what level to stop at. He also flags each entry with other details such as abuse, sex, violence, etc.

This is a super fun collection that makes it clear that women in history were not all demure sweetness. They often fought for what was rightfully theirs, outshone their male peers at many endeavours, and could even be violent terrorists.

Porath has a huge but easy to navigate website that is updated regularly, and which includes many of the entries from the book (a heavy tome with over 100 bios), but also many that aren’t; a search function to find your favourite rejected princess, and an extensive shop with everything from shirts to phone cases to calendars. He’s apparently got a backlog of women to write about, but there’s a place to make suggestions, and a fun FAQ page where he explains his decision to include women with violent histories as well as the good girls who are more inspiring.

This is a great book, perfect for not only your favourite badass gal, but for any lady person (okay, really for anybody… guys need to see women kicking ass, too) over the age of 12.

 

Read More

Eat a Bit of Chocolate – Self Care Month Day 14

 

We have a tendency to confuse self care with “Treat Yo’Self!!” and so today’s advice comes with the disclaimer to pay close attention to the “bit” part.

It’s well known that chocolate contains chemicals that make us feel good. Many people, when surveyed, say they’d choose chocolate over sex. And a little something sweet, especially if it makes us feel grateful – for the treat, or for the person who gave it to us, or just the experience of eating it – is certainly a good thing to do for ourselves.

However (sorry…), sugar has been linked to inflammation in the body, plus cavities, weight gain (from the inflammation), and even depression. That’s right, the candy that makes us feel good when we eat it not only makes us crash an hour later but could be contributing to a bigger long-term funk.

So have your chocolate today (or tomorrow when all the V-day chocolate is half off!!), but do it in moderation, savouring each piece and feeling gratitude for the experience.

Read More

Write a Letter – Self Care Month Day 13

 

What’s in your mailbox today? I bet there are probably some bills, and also some flyers for stuff you probably don’t care about. If you’re lucky, maybe there’s a magazine, or a package for something you ordered online. But do you know what’s not there? A nice card or letter.

Letter writing has fallen by the wayside. In these days of social media, why would anyone even bother to send cards or letters to their friends or family? Especially when email or social media is so much faster. What a waste of paper, right?

Except that getting a card or letter in the mail makes people feel good. Even if – especially if – it’s not a special occasion like a holiday or birthday, getting a card from someone you love, solely for the purpose of telling you that they love you and are thinking about you, feels absolutely fantastic. And sending letters, to loved ones or to strangers, can also make you feel pretty great.

But you must give in order to receive, so start by writing a letter to someone. If you can’t think of anyone you know who might appreciate this gesture, there are plenty of organizations where you can send letters to strangers, or nominate someone to receive letters. Pretty soon, you’ll become addicted to nice pens and fancy stationery, and you’ll have a full-blown hobby that spreads a whole lot of joy.

Not sure about what to say? Here are some tips on writing a love letter, but they can be applied to a like letter as well.

And oh, look, Valentine’s Day is coming up. So get to it. Not sure you want to send letters to friends and family in case they think you’re silly? There are lots of strangers who might like a letter as well.

Read More

Listen to Music – Self Care Month Day 12

The world would be a much darker place without music. All types of music can inspire and energize us, mark our special moments, and fill our days with cheer.

And while any kind of music that you enjoy can help with the winter blues, there are a number of studies on how classical music can improve symptoms of depression and stress. Studies also link classical music to improved memory.

There is even a genre of music that is intended to improve memory. Known as Electronic Cognition or Electronic Focus music, this is electronic music with beta waves that supposedly help the listener to concentrate. Known as binaural beats, there is much debate on whether this music actually works, but when I tried it I found that I did concentrate better on the work I was doing.

Whatever genre you prefer, if music makes you feel better, then put something on in the background, or choose something that makes you get up and dance around the house.

Read More

Meditate – Self Care Month Day 11

When you’re feeling blue and not especially enthused about life, sitting and doing nothing can either seem ideal or absolutely horrible. There are lots of good excuses to avoid meditating, such as; what if my back starts to hurt, I don’t know how to do it, what type of meditation should I try, should I do it alone or in a group, and what if I fart?

There are many different types of meditation, all slightly different, and depending on what you hope to achieve, one may be better than the others. But for the purposes of feeling better because it’s February and the world is kind of shitty, a more general approach might work best.

The website Gaiam claims that some of the benefits of meditation are:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved blood circulation
  • Lower heart rate
  • Less perspiration
  • Slower respiratory rate
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower blood cortisol levels
  • More feelings of well-being
  • Less stress
  • Deeper relaxation

To get started, there are dozens of meditation websites and apps that can help. A lot of people really dig Headspace, but I find the main instructor a bit too chatty. My favourites are a site/app called Stop, Breathe and Think which offers a variety of simple, guided meditations that encourage mindfulness and compassion, as well as Calm, which has a lot of sound files of nature sounds and a timer, if you want to just listen to a stream or some birds. Most of these sites offer some free options with additional paid stuff, or monthly rates that you may or may not be inclined to purchase, depending on how you prefer to meditate. Check the app store for your choice of device, there are plenty of different services, with options for every style of meditation.

If you prefer to meditate in a group, check Google for some courses or groups in your local area.

Most people who do not meditate avoid the activity because they believe that you have to sit for hours every day. But the goal, at first, is not to achieve enlightenment but to simply quiet the mind, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Read More

15 Minute Tidy – Self Care Month Day 10

Depression can be a huge Catch 22. We feel too terrible to get up and do anything, and because we don’t get up to do anything, we feel even more terrible. This theory applies to the space around us as well. When we can’t find the energy to get out of bed, general tidying can often fall by the wayside. And then our house is cluttered and dirty, with piles of dirty laundry or dishes lying around, and we become even more disheartened.

If you can find the energy to dedicate 15 minutes each day to general tidying, it will likely make you feel better both mentally and physically. Remember, cleaning counts towards physical activity. And decluttering has such great benefits:

  • less frustration because things are easier to find
  • a greater sense of harmony and peace because things are already in their place, and you’re not reminded that you have to clean
  • less guilt and embarrassment because your place is no longer a mess
  • less anxiety at the thought of having to sort through piles of stuff

There are plenty of sites out there to help you get organized and clean your place. Unfuck Your Habitat is a great one, and Flylady, while kind of twee, can really help with organizational skills.

And if 15 minutes seems totally overwhelming, start with 5. Clean off a table top or desk, scrub your kitchen sink, or vacuum one room. Take our the garbage. Fold one pile of laundry. This will give you a sense of accomplishment and the incentive to continue, and that’s good for your mental health.

Read More

Get a Massage – Self Care Month Day 9

If some of the self care suggestions I offer sound decadent or unaffordable, trust me when I tell you that they’re not. Take massage, for instance. We often think of a relaxing massage as part of a larger “spa day”, when in fact, massage on its own can do much not only to aid relaxation and improve mood but to help heal aches, pains and injuries. The benefits are definitely worth the cost.

Therapeutic massage can aid both physical and mental health and can even be directed to deal with specific issues – sports massage is an important part of physiotherapy and recovery from sports-related injuries, but you can also get massage designed to help with bereavement, for pregnancy, and even massage designed specifically for seniors.

If a massage with a professional registered massage therapist is still out of your budget, consider checking out a massage school where students will give treatments at a discount price.

Many massage schools also offer basic massage therapy courses for the lay person – these are fun to attend with a partner so you can learn how to massage each other.

Read More

Get Talking – Self Care Month Day 8

When I went through a depressive period a couple of years ago, one of the things I really wanted to do was talk about it. This was mostly me trying to understand what was happening in my head (the depression and anxiety originally started because of a weird drug reaction), but I quickly realized that there’s only so much listening friends and family are able to do. That’s not to say that the people around me weren’t supportive and loving, but often they just didn’t know what to do to help.

Our society still has lots of stigmas surrounding mental health, which means many people who need someone to talk to never search out professional help, but if your February blues are more than just a bit of weather-related funk (or even if they are), there are different ways to find someone who will listen and guide you to deal with your issues.

Here in Canada, while we have a great healthcare system, therapy for mental health services is not typically covered. People with additional health insurance might have psychotherapy coverage, but for most of us, those funds are limited. And while face to face talk therapy is the best option in many cases, if you need some help and don’t have the time, money, or inclination to go through the traditional systems, online talk therapy can fill the gap and even be a better option for many people.

Sites like TalkSpace, 7 Cups of Tea, Breakthrough, and Better Help are reasonably-priced, and can offer much more frequent interaction than traditional weekly therapy. Using their website or a phone app, patients can sign up, be assessed and interact with an assigned therapist without leaving home. In most cases, the therapist replies once a day, but the patient can write as much as they want, whenever they want, making the response more immediate, and more specific to the issue at hand. Live chats or even video chats can be arranged for an additional fee, and it’s easy to switch therapists if you find you’re not clicking. Most of these sites also offer a free forum area, and there are also sites where you can vent to (unqualified) strangers, but my research indicates that these are less helpful than the paid services.

My own experience with the site TalkSpace was incredibly helpful, and I would definitely use it again if I felt the need.

Whatever kind of therapy you choose, know that it’s a fantastic, positive step in your own self-care.

Read More