Pillars, Magic Lanterns, Bird Cloud, and Food Matters

Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth
What a book! Over a thousand pages of intense historical fiction, riveting characters, dynamic plotting, and a satisfying ending. This is a wonderful story you can sink your teeth into, especially if you want to sink them in for a long time. After reading this, you will have no problem understanding why this is still a top seller in Germany, the UK, and the US.

Rachel Polonsky's Molotov's Magic Lantern
I was very excited about this book, but was dismally disappointed. I am a huge Russian literature and history buff, so I assumed that this would be right up my alley. The book jacket suggests that MLM investigates the lives of the authors who wrote some of the books in Molotov's library. Molotov was a henchman of Stalin's, and signed the death warrants of many of the intelligentsia and writers, some of whom had written the very books Molotov collected. The irony was intriguing, and I was excited for an exploration of the Stalin era from a literary perspective. Though Polonsky touches upon this topic, she doesn't delve deep. This book is part travelogue, part memoir, part history, part literary criticism, but it doesn't do any of these well. The lack of contextualization and the overwhelming number of topics makes this feel like a slog through a scholar's notebook, rather than an informative read about a unique time and place. Critics seem to like this book, mostly because of its aim and language, but it falls short in the readability category, and I'm sorry to say that I can't recommend it.

Annie Proulx's Bird Cloud
Annie Proulx's first nonfiction book in some years details her experiences building an eco-friendly house in Wyoming on a piece of land she aptly names Bird Cloud. This is a subtle memoir, one that relies more on the beauty of the language, rather than the story to keep the pages turning, but it is nonetheless interesting to read about the challenges of building in such a beautiful, desolate place. She clearly loves Bird Cloud, and by the end of the memoir, you can understand how this type of place could offer spiritual sustenance to a person's soul. The final chapter, in which she describes the lives of the birds living in the neigborhood is particularly resonant and charming.

Mark Bittman's Food Matters
Another food book making an age-old argument to a society obsessed with meat, starch and sugar: eat more plants. Bittman comes to this philosophy through a deeper understanding of how meat production affects the environment and his own challenges to maintain good health. He advocates eating like 'food matters' with a greater emphasis on plants and grains, without completely eliminating meat or processed food. The latter two should be seen as icing on the cake, rather the main performers on the plate. This is not a diet, but a way of thinking about food that is better for the environment and for the waistline. He includes 77 recipes that will encourage anyone to be more mindful about including plants in their diet.


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