Friday, October 30, 2009

Book Quotes: Suicide Bombers

From My Hope for Peace by Jehan Sadat (page 43):

Nor are suicide bombers necessarily Muslims: secular Palestinian groups have resorted to similar tactics, and it was a Sri Lankan separatist group, the Tamil Tigers, that perfected the use of the suicide bomb as an assassination tool in the 1980s and 1990s. The common denominator is not a shared faith, but rather an overwhelming sense of grievance, powerlessness, and hatred.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Giveaway: The Science of the Oven

The Science of the Oven cover

The Science of the Oven
by Hervé This
translated by Jody Gladding

Hardback: 216 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press
First Released: 2007, 2009

I'm holding a giveaway for my hardback review copy of The Science of the Oven by Hervé This. You can learn more about the book by reading my review.

This contest is open to USA and Canada residents.

To enter the giveaway:

1) you can twitter me saying "@genrereviewer Enter me to win THE SCIENCE OF THE OVEN. The title of another book from @ColumbiaUP is ________." (Of course, you need to fill in the title of another book published by Columbia University Press. Hint: look here.)


2) You can leave a comment to this post asking to be entered and giving the title of another book published by Columbia University Press.

The winner will be randomly selected. I'll announce the winner at noon (Central Time, Daylight Savings Time) on November 4, 2009 on this blog. If you entered using twitter, I'll send you a @ or DM telling you of your win and asking where to send the book. If you entered using the blog comments, you'll need to leave your e-mail address. If the winner hasn't responded within four days of notification, a new winner will be selected.

I hope everyone has fun with this!

The Science of the Oven by Hervé This

The Science of the Oven cover

The Science of the Oven
by Hervé This
translated by Jody Gladding

Hardback: 216 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press
First Released: 2007, 2009

Buy from Amazon

Source: Review copy from publisher

Back Cover Description:
Mayonnaise "takes" when a series of liquids form a semisolid consistency. Eggs, a liquid, become solid as they are heated, whereas, under the same conditions, solids melt. When meat is roasted, its surface browns and it acquires taste and texture. What accounts for these extraordinary transformations?

The answer: chemistry and physics. With trademark clarity and wit, Hervé This launches a wry investigation into the chemical art of cooking. Unraveling the science behind common culinary technique and practice, Hervé This breaks food down to its molecular components and matches them to cooking's chemical reactions. He translates the complex processes of the oven into everyday knowledge for professional chefs and casual cooks; demystifies the meaning of taste and the making of flavor; describes the properties of liquids, salts, sugars, oils, and fats; and defines the principles of culinary practice, which endow food with sensual as well as nutritional value.

For fans of Hervé This's popular volumes and for newcomers to his celebrated approach, The Science of the Oven fuses the physiology of taste to the molecular structure of bodies and food, expertly expanding the possibilities of the kitchen.

The Science of the Oven explored the chemistry and physics of cooking (and eating). The author's main focus was on how the scientific understanding of cooking and eating can lead to new possibilities in food experimentation. He discussed new scientific findings, explained how this information could be used to make cooking more effective or exact or varied in taste, and then sometimes offered experiments a reader could do in the kitchen to demonstrate the point or create a new taste for his/her eating pleasure.

The introduction was very chatty and funny with asides in the middle of sentences. The asides decreased in the main part of the book, but the author's enthusiasm for the subject still shone through.

The book is easiest to follow if you have at least a basic understanding of chemistry. However, he did explain scientific terms as he went along and assumed he was talking to a non-scientist. He generally kept the explanation simple or gave a summary statement in nontechnical language after giving the technical explanation. There was a short glossary of terms at the back to help with this.

Chapters 1-4 reported in detail on a series of scientific studies and so were a bit heavy on the technical language. Chapters 4-7 still focused on the science but were more conversational in language and easier for me to follow.

Chapter One explored how our various senses affect how we perceive taste. Chapter Two discussed some studies on how various foods affect our health. Chapter Three discussed how food growing conditions and different food varieties affect our taste.

Chapter Four and Five got into specific examples like how tannins in wine change over time and how that affects their taste, why some corks spoil the wine's taste, why eggs cook the way they do and some experiments one can do with eggs, and the science involved in kneading dough, making of noodles, and jelling liquids. Also, how to effectively tenderize squid, keep the "fresh" bright green color in vegetables when cooking, why re-heating can change the taste of meat, how to effectively flavor meat with liquids before cooking, the conditions where a lute seal does work, why lobster shells turn red when cooked, how food thickeners affect taste (like in yogurt), and experiments in making new sauces.

Chapter Six explored (among other things): how cooking in earthware changes food taste; "new" types of milk coagulants for cheese; the chemistry of making cheese, fondue, and spreadable cheeses; the chemistry of creating pickles; how bread gets stale and how this is prevented commercially; the optimal time to beat egg whites for meringues; the color of emulsions; how champagne bubbles develop; the color and taste of port wine; and preserving the smell of fruit jams.

Chapter Seven discussed cooking with hard water, how food color and smell changes when the pH changes, and future possibilities in cooking.

I enjoyed the book, but I didn't always agree with his opinions. (For example, he's down on people who prefer 'natural' sources in their foods whereas I can see how food chemistry has overall improved people's lives but I still think natural is better if you can get it.)

Overall, this was a slower read than normal, but I had many fun "so that's why!" moments. I think this book would be most interesting and useful to people who like to experiment with creating new dishes, industry professionals, and those who are both scientists and cooks.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from the Introduction (page 7)
In any case, what the first part of our provisions kit shows is that false ideas, as numerous as knowledge gaps, spread with regard to cooking and to tasting. If it is now clear to sensorial neurophysiologists that the number of tastes is not four, for example, books still contain "maps of the tongue" that claim that the tip recognizes sweet, and so on. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! To witness that all tongues are different, all you have to do is ask a group of individuals to stick their tongues into sweet or salty water. Which raises the questions: Why do we cling so to these false ideas on sensorial physiology?

Likewise, it is claimed--even by "specialists"--that smell constitutes 90 percent of taste, but this value has never been measured! Why do we swallow such nonsense? Is it because, with a cold, we sometimes lose all perception of taste? To those who might be tempted to take that as proof, let us remember that we also lose our sense of taste when we burn our mouths on excessively hot food.

....In these times of state-guaranteed citizen comfort, the term "food health and safety" is ubiquitous. We have forgotten that, first of all, a sufficient quantity of food to maintain the organism was the basic issue. That we are preoccupied with the flavor and quality of tomatoes in winter is striking proof of modern agronomy's success. As a result, science has been reduced to examining the details, losing sight of the bigger picture. It tracks the trace element, the antioxidant molecule that--we believe--will help us avoid our all too inevitable aging, it explores the virtues of foods, and it ends up establishing sometimes very limited observations as dogma.

Of course, restricting oneself to an insufficiently varied or unbalanced diet is not healthy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Book Quotes: Supporting Death

From The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance by Nasser Abufarha (p. 197):

The [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] recognized that if Hamas and Jihad were the only groups carrying out martyrdom operations [i.e. suicide attacks] and generating tremendous support by doing so, then leadership of Palestinian society would fall exclusively to the Islamic groups, and the PFLP, along with its programs for social change, would die. Martyrdom is the form of contemporary Palestinian resistance that has proved meaningful and captured the imagination of Palestinian public. To be recognized as a resistance faction, Palestinian groups are compelled to participate in the performance of martyrdom. The cultural discourse of martyrdom has achieved such power that the cultural dynamic is defining the form of engagement and resistance, forcing it on some groups and reorganizing society.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel

The Monuments Men cover

The Monuments Men
by Robert M. Edsel
with Bret Witter

Hardbackback: 496 pages
Publisher: Center Street
First Released: 2009

Book Website
Author on Twitter
Buy from Amazon

Source: ARC from publisher

Back Cover Description (modified by me):
In what is perhaps the last major story about World War II that hasn't been told, a little-known Allied division called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section was given the mission to help protect important historical buildings from war damage and to find European art treasures and historical documents that had been looted by the Nazis at Hitler's command. The art included works from Michelangelo and Da Vinci to Van Eycks and Vermeers.

In a race against time, often near the front lines, and each man working on his own, they organized protection and rebuilding for historical buildings while also gathering and putting together the scraps of information needed to locate hidden caches of movable art. These unlikely heroes, mostly middle-aged family men, went from quiet lives (mostly involved in the art world) into the epicenter of war, risking--and sometimes losing--their lives.

This is their story.

The Monuments Men uses letters written by the Monuments Men and other documents to tell the story why the MFAA section was created and what eight of those men encountered while doing work in Normandy, France and in Germany.

The book assumes the reader doesn't know much about WWII and so fills in the details about the war occurring around them as we learn where they went and what they found and did there. The first part is mainly about how the MFAA section was formed and the problems they encountered in the field because no one else in the military seemed to know about them. The book picks up in excitement (at least, for me) once they get more organized and start tracking down the movable artwork. This part reads like a detective story with the fate of both the artwork and the men searching for it in question.

The story jumps around a bit in time and place as we switch from one Monuments Man to another. The author gives plenty of information so the reader will remember which man this is and what he was last doing, but this started to feel repetitious to me near the end. Also, some stories brought up small points that were never resolved (like a request from a priest to a Monuments Man to get several boys who where his fire brigade released from the Allies--we never know if he succeeded). But perhaps this was because that information was never given in the letters and documents used to make this book.

It would have been nice to have photos of the major pieces of artwork that are mentioned, but the Advanced Readers Copy didn't have them. The back of the ARC did say, though, that 16 pages of photo inserts are included in the final book, though, so likely these will be included among those photos.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I think it would most appeal to people who love artwork or who want to know everything there is to know about WWII.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter Thirty-Six, page 290
Slowly, the Monuments Men began to realize just how much was hidden in the Merkers mines. Crated sculpture, hastily packed, with photographs clipped from museum catalogues to show what was inside. Ancient Egyptian papyri in metal cases, which the salt mine had reduced to the consistency of wet cardboard. There was no time to examine the priceless antiquities inside, for in other rooms there were ancient Greek and Roman decorative works, Byzantine mosaics, Islamic rugs, leather and buckram portfolio boxes. Hidden in an inconspicuous side room, they found the original woodcuts of Albrecht Durer's famous Apocalypse series of 1498. And then more crates of paintings--a Rubens, a Goya, a Cranach packed together with minor works.

"There's no order," Kirstein said. "Time periods and styles mixed together, masterpieces alongside novelties, boxes from different museums. What happened here?"

"They were packed by size," Posey said, pointing out the uniformity of the paintings in one of the crates.

Read the first few pages of the book.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Book Quotes: Shia vs Sunni Beliefs

From My Hope for Peace by Jehan Sadat (page 36-37):

Because of their conviction that leadership of the ummah must remain in the Prophet's own line, Shia Muslims--Shi'at Ali, or Party of Ali--have not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders, following instead a line of imams, of which Ali was the first. The Shia imamate, in contrast to the Sunni caliphate, is a religious office as well as a political one. Whereas caliphs regarded their power as temporal, the imams were "divinely inspired, sinless, infallible, religio-political" leaders, according to Akbar Ahmed, author of Islam Today. There are other differences in Sunni and Shiite approaches to Islamic jurisprudence and their interpretations of history that are beyond the scope of this book to explore, but both Sunni and Shiite practice the five pillars of Islam and regard one another as Muslims.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ghosts of the Fireground by Peter M. Leschak

Ghosts of the Fireground cover

Ghosts of the Fireground
by Peter M. Leschak

Hardback: 271 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins
First Released: 2002

Buy from Amazon

Source: Bought from

Back Cover Description:
"On October 8, 1871, a wildfire of staggering immensity transformed the lumbering town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin (population 2,000), into a literal, burning hell. It was the deadliest fire in North American history. At least 1,200 people died, and the actual number of fatalities is unknown. Eighteen hundred square miles of wood, fields, and settlements were burned. By cruel coincidence, it was the very day and hour of the Great Chicago Fire....The unlikely simultaneity of the two infernos has rendered Peshtigo unknown to most Americans."

April of 2000: On the brink of one of the most ferocious fire seasons ever recorded, and faced with the challenge of commanding an elite attack helicopter team, wildland firefighter Peter Leschak discovers Father Pernin's written account of surviving the wildfire that devastated Peshtigo. As he takes us through Father Perin's dangerous clash with the Great Peshtigo Fire, Leschak recounts his journey from a life preparing for the ministry to a career dedicated to fighting fires. In doing so, he breathes life into one of the most astounding and little-known disasters in American history and captures the sacred and mysterious pull of the fireground.

From Father Pernin's struggle with an inferno so hot that not even the cold waters of the Peshtigo River guaranteed safety to the danger of today's frontline battles in America's wildlands, Ghosts of the Fireground weaves seamlessly between these compelling adventures, offering a breathtaking look at the awesome power of fire and the courageous and noble pursuit that is wildland firefighting.

Ghosts of the Fireground is an interesting book. It's partly Mr. Leschak's autobiography and partly a re-telling of what happened in the Pestigo fire as experienced by Father Pernin.

The narrative jumps around a lot and uses the author's experiences in the 2002 fire season as a frame for the rest of the stories. I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of what was going on in the 2002 fire situation since he would stop in the middle of his account to talk about several similar fires in his past that taught him something important or to continue his narrative about the 1871 Pestigo fire.

I found the narrative about the Pestigo fire very interesting and liked how the author explained what Father Pernin was experiencing based his knowledge of wildfires. I also found the parts about the training, techniques, work, and frontline experiences of the modern wildland firefighting to be very interesting, dramatically told (in a good way), and informative.

However, trying to wrap my brain about his every-changing religious ideas just made my brain hurt. He grew up as a Catholic. As a teenager, he heard Herbert W. Armstrong on the radio, converted to following him, and joined the Worldwide Church of God. Then he decided that Armstrong was wrong so it must all be wrong. He now worships nature, fire, danger, death, self, or whatever strikes him as sounding poetical at the moment. He states that when he dies he wants to be reborn as a great wild fire to test the worthiness of his fellow firefighters.

I worry a bit that someone will take Mr. Leschak's beliefs about what the Bible teaches as an accurate representation of what the Bible or mainstream Protestant Christianity teaches. It isn't.

There is a minor amount of cussing in the book. Overall, it' a good book if you're interested in learning more about wildland firefighting.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
Heat can enjoy a surprisingly long life span in tightly arranged fuels such as sawdust, hay, forest duff, or peat. In some cases, such sleepers (pockets of latent fire) have survived for a years or more in peat and deep duff. It's common for a lightning-struck snag to quietly smolder unnoticed for days before bursting into flame.

The spot was quickly doused, but a gale arose from the north-west and a fresh wall of flame again peppered the town [of Peshtigo] with air-borne embers. The local fire engine was deployed, and hundreds of new wooden pails were commandeered from the factory. People scattered like dogs after birds, splashing water on each fresh start, shouting and coughing. Dense smoke and whirls of ash and dust brought tears to their eyes, aggravated by rivulets of sweat. Teams of horses hauled water from the river, and over three hundred people labored through the day. Buildings on the outskirts were evacuated, their furniture and other goods shifted toward the center of town. Wet blankets were draped over roofs, and smoldering trees were felled and slapped with water.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book Quote: Discrimination

From The Weave of My Life by Urmila Pawar (pages 196-197):

This incident, however, also added fuel to the fire of resentment some people had already started feeling about me. They resented the reservation policy and my caste, because of which I got the promotion. In truth, my promotion hardly meant anything to me. There would be a meager raise in my salary, some fifty or sixty rupees. But I had achieved some power, and that was precisely what irked people. I had taken this job in 1966. During the ten years after that, that is, up to 1976, it was rare to hear people say, "Oh these low castes! No less than the sons-in-law of the government!" or "They are such a pampered lot!" or they would refer to low castes as "the arrogant," "the bigheaded!"

But in 1970 the roster system was introduced in government jobs, and it became mandatory to appoint Dalit and tribal candidates. The resentment against the Dalits and other reserved category people began to rise. This was the period during which such expressions began to be increasingly used against the Dalits! This was also around the time I had become the branch manager. Sitting in my chair at work would make me very happy. Up until that day I would have to ask my boss for his permission; now I would be the one to grant permission to my juniors! Those who felt happy about it congratulated me from the bottoms of their hearts, while some others just pretended to be happy, since they very much resented my promotion! The moment a man was promoted, he immediately became a bhausaheb or raosaheb. But women remained simply bai, without the saheb, even after their promotions! Besides I was a Dalit! "Why should she expect to be addressed as baisaheb?" "Why should we ask for her permission?" some people grumbled.

These days, however, every woman, whether a housewife or a working girl, has become madam, because of the tremendous influence of English, which has reached our kitchens. Because of this verbal promotion, even a woman peon is now addressed in the plural form, with a show of outward respect. This has generated self-respect, which finds expression even in the lowest of the low.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Making of a Human Bomb by Nasser Abufarha

The Making of a Human Bomb

The Making of a Human Bomb:
An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance
by Nasser Abufarha

Trade Paperback: 296 pages
Publisher: Duke University Press
First Released: 2009

Buy from Amazon

Source: ARC from publisher

Back Cover Description:
In The Making of a Human Bomb, Nasser Abufarha, a Palestinian anthropologist, explains the cultural logic underlying Palestinian martyrdom operations (suicide attacks) launched against Israel during the Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000–06). In so doing, he sheds much-needed light on how Palestinians have experienced and perceived the broader conflict. During the Intifada, many of the martyrdom operations against Israeli targets were initiated in the West Bank town of Jenin and surrounding villages. Abufarha was born and raised in Jenin. His personal connections to the area enabled him to conduct ethnographic research there during the Intifada, while he was a student at a U.S. university.

Abufarha draws on the life histories of martyrs, interviews he conducted with their families and members of the groups that sponsored their operations, and examinations of Palestinian literature, art, performance, news stories, and political commentaries. He also assesses data—about the bombers, targets, and fatalities caused—from more than two hundred martyrdom operations carried out by Palestinian groups between 2001 and 2004. Some involved the use of explosive belts or the detonation of cars; others entailed armed attacks against Israeli targets (military and civilian) undertaken with the intent of fighting until death. In addition, he scrutinized suicide attacks executed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad between 1994 and 2000.

In his analysis of Palestinian political violence, Abufarha takes into account Palestinians’ understanding of the history of the conflict with Israel, the effects of containment on Palestinians’ everyday lives, the disillusionment created by the Oslo peace process, and reactions to specific forms of Israeli state violence. The Making of a Human Bomb illuminates the Palestinians’ perspective on the conflict with Israel and provides a model for ethnographers seeking to make sense of political violence.

I probably have a better understanding of the history and reasons behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the average American, but I learned a lot from The Making of a Human Bomb. It's the best book I've come across on explaining the source of conflict. I knew the least about what apparently most Palestinians-in-occupied-areas assume Americans know: what daily life is like for the average person in Israeli-occupied Palestinian areas. Reading this book really helped me understand the deeper reasons behind the conflict, why peace seems unreachable, why suicide attacks are used, and why they're used against civilian populations.

While parts of this book are rather technical in language (especially the introduction and conclusion, which basically state what aspects the book covered and how the author went about his research), the great majority of the book is in conversational language and easy to follow. I found the conversational parts extremely interesting and enlightening.

Since the book intentionally focuses on how Palestinians view the conflict with Israel, Israel doesn't come off as looking very good. However, the author simply presents the facts and does a good job of leaving it up to the reader to judge whether the actions on either side are moral or not. I never felt like this was a "bash Israel" or "pro resistance" book. It came across as an objective look at the problem, how it developed, and the underlying cultural motivations behind the popularity of suicide bombs as a means of Palestinian resistance.

The author does a very good job of presenting a complex situation and making it understandable. It's a powerful book. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in the core reasons behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, understanding the Palestinian use of suicide attacks on civilians, and/or understanding some factors which drive the acceptance and use of suicide bombs in any culture.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter Six
[This is from page 208. Since the excerpt comes from such a late chapter, I'll define some of the language. "Martyrdom" here refers to suicide attacks. "In the imaginary" refers to in a person's mind. As in, they are constantly aware of the violence that might happen.]

Martyrdom is the form of violence that projects terror on the Israeli public as a whole. As Reda stated, an operation does not have to be "successful" to project fear. As long as some operations are "successful," any attempt has an impact as a form of violence in the imaginary that projects fear among Israelis. Strategies oriented to the "balance of fear" aim to bring a level of fear among the Israeli public similar to that prevailing among the Palestinian public under Israel's occupation. Anwar explained that there was a conscious decision in Hamas to achieve a balance of fear: "There are missiles, tanks, weaponry that terrify the public. The behaviors of the [Israeli] soldiers, the roadblocks, the militarized scene in general scares the public...Hamas's role in martyrdom operations, exploding buses and public places, is asserting to them as we are not safe in our homes you are not safe in your homes."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Book Quotes: Turkish occupation of Bulgaria

From Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr. (pages 174-175):

In the early decades of the Turkish occupation of Bulgaria, Turkish rule had been harsh. Towns were sacked. Vast numbers of Christians fled, their towns resettled by Turks. The Christians who remained were subjected to a heavy "capitation" tax. The Christian families of Bulgaria became a rich source for the enslavement of janissaries [soldiers], the flower of Balkan youth who were seized from their families between the ages of ten and twelve, sent to Constantinople for training, and were now returning to their native land as an invading force. As the janissaries provided the Ottomans with first-rate soldiers, so their recruitment undermined the ability of annexed territory to resist. The Ottomans replaced the feudal system with their own administration, dividing the country into sanjaks or districts, to be ruled by a commander or beyleybey in Sophia. Many nobles had converted to Islam and were rewarded for it with fiefdoms. Most Bosnians converted as well.

But after the initial suppression and reorganization of Bulgaria, the lot of the subject peoples, especially the peasantry, improved under Ottoman rule. Aside from the brutal enslavement of janissaries, Christians were not required to perform military service. Aside from voluntary and self-serving conversions, no systematic effort at enforced conversion to Islam was undertaken. Aside from the capitation tax, Christian churches were permitted to function as before. Commerce thrived as the Ottomans built new roads.