Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Seventh

The Seventh by Richard Stark. 156 pages.
One of the early Parker novels (the seventh, acutally) written by the late Donald Westlake under the pseudonym that became almost as famous as his real name. This is the tale of a heist. No surprise there, heists are Parker's specialty. This one goes wrong, but that's no surprise either, someone is always messing up, or pulling a double-cross. Though you would think that the trail of bodies that Parker has left would convince his co-conspirators to do there best and put in an honest days' worth of dishonesty when they were working with  him. He's never all that concerned with anything that might come between him and what he stole. This particular heist involves a stadium full of football fans, back in the day when a lot more people were paying cash for their tickets. Parker's team of thieves consists of seven talented crooks and this time it all goes wrong after the job. When people start dying and the money disappears when everyone is supposed to be laying low, waiting until the heat dies down, Parker has to scramble to remain free and among the living. That doesn't leave him in a good mood. Formulaic, but fun and relentless.
Maplewood Library has this 2009 reprint of the 1966 noir classic.

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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. 307 pages.
This was one of my absolute favorites this year. A finalist for the 2012 National Book Award, Fountain's novel takes place, physically, during a Dallas Cowboy's home game on Thanksgiving. Billy and his comrades from Bravo Company (though the name their known by has been changed to Bravo Squad by the news-folk who made them famous) are heroes. They're on a victory tour and they are being wooed by Hollywood and the Cowboys owner for the rights to their story-specifically the firefight in Iraq that transfixed the nation as it was televised, and then repeated over and over again. Billy's got some secrets, his sister wants him out of the Army, he's got a thing going with one of the cheerleaders, and then there's the one that the whole squad shares, that they're not supposed to mention while on tour. He has things that he wants to talk about but can't, and things he does not want to talk about or think about. The characters are great, and their relationships to each other are almost frantic. It's a great read, one of the best of an excellent group of books about the recent wars.

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Downloadable audio.

Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo, 435 pages

Alina's a super-powerful Grisha, able to summon and control sunlight like no other. She's on the run from the mysterious Darkling, attempting to salvage the remains of her homeland with the help of her faithful friend/boyfriend Mal and, oddly, a pirate privateer and his motley crew. This is a great follow-up to Shadow and Bone, and certainly answers some of the questions I had at the end of that volume. The story sucked me in, and I can't wait to see what Bardugo throws at us in the third book. Too bad I have to wait a year for that one.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Raven Girl

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger, 80 pages

Once upon a time there was a postman who fell in love with a raven. Their only child is the subject of this fairy tale, which explores identity, social norms, and the ethics of medical science in an approachable, visual way. Niffenegger's story is simple, and her artwork is quirky and lovely. A great new fairy tale for modern times.

An extra tidbit: Niffenegger wrote this story as the basis for a new ballet. I'd love to see how this story translates into dance.

Norwegian by Night / Derek B. Miller 292 pp.

What do you call an 82-year-old slightly demented East Coast retired Jewish watch repairman who squares off against a gang of Kosovar organized crime thugs in Oslo to save a child he barely knows?  Quixotic.  Indeed, Sheldon 'Donny' Horowitz is a true knight errant, and one of the best characters I've met in awhile.  To be fair, he may or may not have been a Marine sniper in Korea, which explains his facility with rifles, but he's still fighting long odds. 

Sheldon comes to Oslo somewhat begrudgingly to be with his granddaughter and is having difficulty adjusting when violence explodes in an upstairs apartment.  Believing that he failed his son Saul, dead years ago in Vietnam, Sheldon is determined to protect the little boy left behind in the fallout.  With the help of many long conversations with his old friend Bill (also long dead, but that doesn't stop him from showing up and giving his opinion), Sheldon hatches a plan and sees it through. Full of musings about Jewish American patriotism, atonement, religion, and strangely suspenseful, too.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Crown of Midnight

Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass book 2), by Sarah J. Maas; young adult, fantasy; 432 pages

I blogged about the first book in this series last year, and was psyched when Kara brought me back an advance copy of the sequel from ALA.  This book picks up where the first one left off:  Celaena is now the King's Champion (read:  his personal assassin), and has been ordered to track down and execute a number of accused traitors (at least one of whom Celaena knows personally).  She still would like nothing better than to see an end to the tyrannical king, but she's got too much to lose for her to risk involvement in a rebellion.  To make matters worse, her personal relationships with both the Crown Prince and the Captain of the Guard are getting increasingly complex, and the last thing Celaena needs is more friends who can be threatened to keep her in line.

I had just as much fun with this book as I did with its predecessor; I expected this one to suffer from middle book syndrome, but Maas managed to avoid that quite neatly.  This book has a plot all its own (with a beginning, middle, and end!  Yay!), but also manages to nicely set up the next book without that being the only purpose of this book.  I'm also impressed with how Maas has tied in the prequel novellas, which I know are out there, but haven't read:  there's a nice balance that lets me know that these stories happened, but I never felt like I needed to read them in order to understand this book. 

I'd recommend this to fans of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley (her Damar books); if anyone out there has read the Glasswright series by Mindy Klasky, it's also a good read-alike for this book. 

Bootstrapper: From broke to badass on a northern Michigan farm, by Mardi Jo Link

The twelve months between June 2005 and 2006 were grim for the author.  Her husband of twenty years and she have parted company, but he hasn’t gone far – just to a house across the road, in fact, from the six acre farm they once occupied together.  With few monetary resources (she’s a writer….), Mardi Jo struggles to keep the house and farm together and keep food on the table for her three hungry and growing sons.  Meanwhile, the divorce proceedings drag on and one disaster after another tries her resilience and that of her boys.  Beloved animals die, appliances fail, there’s a fox in the hen house, etc.  But a native optimism and a rather half-assed search for spirituality sustain her and by the end of the year, life has become different, and better, in many respects.  One has to accept the premise that she left “Mr. Wonderful,” as he is sarcastically referred to, for good reason, although it does seem that that the marriage just kind of got dull.  She initiated the split.  So to some extent she is culpable of her sons’ and her difficulties.  OK, not great, but you have to admire her spirit.  258 pp.

Andrew Zimmern's Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild, & Wonderful Foods

Andrew Zimmern's Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild, & Wonderful Foods: An Intrepid Eater's Digest by Andrew Zimmern   197 pp.

This book is full of weird food, hilarious commentary, sidebars of interesting and often funny information, and lots of photos. It's intended for kids but adults, especially fans of Zimmern's show Bizarre Foods, will enjoy it. The intention was to show children that foods are a cultural thing and what we consider strange are everyday items for others. However, it didn't make me the slightest bit inclined to eat some of the featured items. Some of the ones I have tried, like haggis and alligator, while not awful, didn't impress me. The book did impress me and is lots of fun.

Bad Monkey

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen  317 pp.

Andrew Yancy former detective for the Miami and Key West Police, has been demoted to restaurant inspector, aka Roach Patrol for assaulting his ex-girlfriend's husband in a unique way. After a strange turn of events Yancy is left with a human arm in his freezer, an arm that was caught by a fisherman. Yancy thinks the explanation for the arm's existence (boating accident) is bogus. He is determined to prove it was murder in hopes that he may win back his old job on the police force. While doing that he has to deal with the crazy ex-girlfriend; a property developer who has ruined the view from his house; the widow of the frozen arm; a voodoo witch whose young lovers tend to end up dead; his new love, a Miami medical examiner; a hurricane; and the Bad Monkey who was once an extra in Johnny Depp's "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. It's a convoluted wild ride with hilarious twists. This was the first adult novel of Hiaasen's that I have read after enjoying his children's books. Now I have to go back to read the older ones. I listened to the audiobook version which was read by Arte Johnson (yes, the "Laugh-In" guy) and had lots of laughs while driving to and from work.

Neil Gaiman's "Make Good Art" Speech

Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman  86 pp.

Christa reviewed this book recently and there is not much I can add to her comments. You can see Gaiman giving the speech here.  I loved Chip Kidd's design of the book and I plan to buy a couple copies to give as gifts for some artsy friends.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Life's Operating Manual

Life's Operating Manual with the Fear and Truth Dialogues by Tom Shadyac 261 pgs.

Tom Shadyac directed Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and many other hit comedies.  The popularity of his movies led to his personal financial success.  He rode the wave to the top and then looked down and didn't like what he saw.  He decided to live an authentic life and change his ways.  Nothing he had was making him happy and it did not reflect who he was.  In this book, Tom gives us look into the thinking and philosophy that informs his life revision.  This is a guy who gave up his mansion and moved into a double wide trailer. He says he has been called crazy many times but a lot of what is contained in this book doesn't seem that way.

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American Savage

American Savage: insights, slights, and fights on faith, sex, love and politics by Dan Savage 301 pg.

This is a collection of essays by Savage about a variety of topics, mostly controversial topics if you are to look at the headlines.  But there are other reflections on his family, his faith, and his life in general that are very personal.  Savage is not one to shy away from an argument about topics he is passionate about.  Somehow that led him to host an activist against marriage rights at his home...for dinner followed by a debate.  I think the reaction of his husband to this crazy idea might be my favorite part of the book.  But I like a lot of parts of this book.  I have always admired Savage and his ability to use logic to make his points.  Hopefully logic is something that will be effective to some bystanders who are undecided or unsure of their beliefs.  Clearly it won't work on some.

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Claire Dewitt and the city of the dead

Claire Dewitt and the city of the dead by Sara Gran 273 pgs.

Claire Dewitt is the worlds greatest private least that is what she will tell you.  She started as a teen and feels like the good PI's are called to it and are "naturals".  She is a devoted follower of Jacques Silette who wrote a handbook that reveals more mysteries than it solves. Claire is in New Orleans trying to find out what happened to Leon's uncle Vic who disappeared in the hurricane.  Vic was an assistant DA in a city whose justice system is a bit messed up from the bottom to the top.  Claire is haunted by many things in her past but is able to make strides on the case.  Her original suspect Andray is a kid with nothing to lose and yet they become friendly and respect each other.  This is different than any other mystery I've read.  The idea that the clues are in front of you and you must allow yourself to see them is interesting.  I am looking forward to the next in this series.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens/Libba Bray 396 pgs. audio book read by the author

This book, as read by the author, is just fabulous.  A plane full of beauty contestants crashes on a desert island and it is a survival story from there.  The typical beauty queen is much tougher than you think and they are organized and motivated.  Turns out there are other forces at work...THE CORPORATION sponsors the pageant and also is in the middle of a weapons deal with the Republic of Cha Cha.  The beauty queens end up embroiled in a plot to get someone a leg up on the presidential election.  Great fun.  I recommend this audio version highly.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, 277 pages

I love a good heist, and Colfer delivers with this tale of a 12-year-old criminal mastermind and his ingenious theft of legendary fairy gold. Artemis comes from a long line of gentlemen thieves, but he's the first to try stealing from a race that he isn't even sure exists. Sure enough, they do, and we manage to meet a handful of fairies of different races, some of whom are more human-like than others. This was a fun story, full of twists, deception, and more than a little fart humor, making it particularly attractive to the YA audience for which it was written. I particularly liked Artemis' nemesis Holly Short, who undoubtedly plays a major role in the rest of the Artemis Fowl series. I see more of these in my future, as I share them with my kids.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Dinner

The Dinner by Herman Koch  292 pp.

Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, are meeting his brother, Serge, and Serge's wife, Babette, for dinner at an exclusive restaurant. At the start it seems like the story is going to be a scathing review by Paul of his politician brother's idiosyncrasies. The book soon evolves into a tale of their children, teen boys who have committed a horrific crime. The dinner is a pretense for the parents to discuss how they are going to protect their children from the consequences of their actions. The result is a twisted and unpleasant story of crime, mental illness, and failure to take responsibility for one's actions. The end leaves you wishing they all would go to jail for a long long time.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

TransAtlantic / by Colum McCann 304 p.

Linda beat me to this one! I also found the writing poetic, but have to admit that the style took awhile to get used to. This was definitely a high-concept book in its combination of fictional and real-life characters. Although many novels include historical figures, few put them center stage and, I think, fewer still take the risk of telling the story from a living, famous person's point of view. This worked beautifully for the pages on Frederick Douglass in famine-troubled Ireland. (Yes, I know that Douglass is no longer living,) I found this part of the book fascinating, subtle and moving. By contrast, reading from the point of view of George Mitchell as he leads the 1998 peace talks was less effective. It had a constrained, narrow feel, as though McCann didn't feel free to fully inhabit the character. Still, this was a wonderful read and I heartily recommend it.

Heat and Dust / Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 181 p.

This was a re-read by one of my favorite authors, and the title for which she won the Booker.  Prawer Jhabvala has also written many screenplays, particularly for Merchant Ivory.  In 1923 young and pretty Olivia joins her civil servant husband in India, where she quickly grows bored, at least until she meets the Nawab, a regional prince with mysterious and possibly criminal connections.  Fifty years later a distant relative, an unnamed young woman from England, travels to India to 'research' Olivia, now dead, through her remaining letters.

This is a perfectly-constructed, brief novel which works out the author's perennial theme: the ways in which individuals, especially young Westerners, are hypnotized by powerful people and cultures.  Prawer Jhabvala has the insight of a psychologist while using none of the jargon, portraying motives and feelings with a subtle, precise style.

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

The novel crisscrosses both the Atlantic Ocean and three centuries weaving events and characters into a rich tapestry.  Perhaps only McCann could manage to bring together pioneer fliers Alcock and Brown, who were the first (forget Lindbergh) to cross the Pond; Frederick Douglass; and Senator George Mitchell, as well as four generations of fictional women who connect these dots.  The common thread is Ireland and its “troubles.”  Lily Duggan, an Irish maid, immigrates to America not long after meeting Douglass, who was on a lecture tour in Ireland.  For those who live in St. Louis, there is another connection in the book (not Lindbergh) as she ultimately settles in St. Louis and her daughter, Emily, lives here around the time of the World’s Fair of 1904. When Emily and her daughter, Lottie move to Newfoundland, they meet Alcock and Brown who are preparing their repurposed World War I bomber for their flight over the water to Ireland.  They are asked to carry a letter from Emily with them across the Atlantic and it is this undelivered, and unopened, letter that rounds out the story.  The language varies from lyrical to abrupt, with many short sentences and fragments which makes it read, at times, like poetry or evokes a dream-like feeling.     304 pp.

The Bookman's Tale

The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett 352 pgs.

Peter and Amanda meet in college and make a cute couple.  Peter is a bookish guy who ends up working at the library in the special collections.  He hones his skills to recognize important works and also picks up some restoration skills.  This is only part of the story...the best part is the mystery revolving around a certain book that may prove that Shakespeare didn't really write his works.  As you may already know, there is some controversy on this topic.  The story bounces around from modern day, Peter's college days, Shakespeare's day and follows some book collectors through time.  The Shakespeare related stuff is great but the book slows down whenever we are stuck with Peter and Amanda.  Maybe I'm just crabby but this "romance" is too predictable and unnecessary.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Complete Don Quixote

The Complete Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes; art and adaptation by Rob Davis, 288 pages

What's that you say? You say that I'm the first person to blog about Don Quixote? I would totally celebrate this, except for the fact that this is the pretty Cliffs Notes version graphic novel adaptation.

This version certainly hits the high points of the story, and Davis' cartoony art was great, given the subject matter. I particularly liked his take on Sancho Panza and the truly hideous Aldonza/Dulcinea, as well as the switch in art style and font for the many stories-within-the-story. I could see how the latter, in particular, could get confusing in a text-based version. And I'll admit that it was nice to get the basics of the plot in a few days instead of months of dozing off while reading.

But I do feel like I missed something by not experiencing Cervantes' words as they were written (or translated into English in a more traditional know what I mean!). Certainly, something must have been cut out to make a 940-page book into less than 300, and I have no idea what it was.

So this is good if you just want the basics, but I wouldn't recommend it as a substitution if you're taking a test or writing a paper on the actual novel.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Detroit: an American Autopsy

Detroit: an American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff 316 pgs.

What is happening in Detroit?  All we hear is nothing good. Well this book continues with that narrative.  Charlie LeDuff left a job at the New York Times to return home to work at the Detroit News.  What kind of homecoming can you expect when you are talking about Detroit?  This city is the poster child for urban decay, political corruption and just being a MESS.  Charlie starts doing what he does best...reporting, talking to people, getting the lay of the land.  This book may shock you, it may depress you, it may teach you something.  You will have a hard time putting it down once you start. I hope Detroit isn't the canary in the coalmine and this is the direction all urban areas are going but who knows?  Fewer diverse opportunities to actually make a living can't bode well for many.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, 358 pages

Alina Starkov is an orphan, minding her own business in the army, when BOOM she finds out she has magical powers. And not just any magical powers. She's the one and only Sun Summoner, who (legend has it) has the ability to destroy the Shadow Fold, a really creepy, dangerous, and, duh, dark area that has plagued her homeland for centuries. So she is spirited away to a boarding school (of sorts) where she can learn to harness her powers and become protegee to the mysterious Darkling.

Sound a bit familiar? Yeah, this has some definite Harry Potter-esque moments (the teens in the magical school even sit in four tables, separated by the colors of their powers; there's an uneasy alliance between the school and the official government that will certainly erupt in future books; oh, and of course that whole orphan-who-doesn't-know-their-powers thing), but it has a lot more in common with dystopian YA than your typical teen fantasy, though that's definitely where this would be categorized. Alina's part of a weird love triangle (of course), and her powers make her highly sought after by the government, though she's not too comfy with that role.

I liked that this book had an Asian (well, fantasy Asian) setting rather than the typical American or British feel, though some of the official names for things were a bit grating, with too many "-nik"s and "-ski"s added to the end of English words. One thing I didn't like, however, was that Alina does something toward the end of the book that is simply shocking, considering her actions over the previous 340 pages. I'll continue to read this series, in part because I want to know if she redeems herself for this action.

The Hit

The Hit by David Baldacci  392 pp.

Will Robie, who was introduced in Baldacci's novel The Innocent, is one of the U.S. Government's top sniper/assassins. When a fellow assassin suddenly begins killing fellow agency members Robie is given the task of hunting her down and killing her. Rogue agent Jessica Reel is a professional who equals Robie in skill and talent so the hunt is a real challenge. Soon it appears that there is more to the killings than just an agent turned enemy. Robie has to figure out if Reel is really committing treason or if there is another reason for her targeting the agency higher ups and others in the federal government. Soon Robie is not sure who to trust. The twists and turns in the story make it a page turner (although I was listening to the audiobook). Robie is a likable character in spite of being a trained killer. This book can be read without having read The Innocent, but the ending leaves open the possibility of the series continuing. And while I enjoyed the audio version, the addition of sound effects was occasionally problematic when listening while driving. On more than one occasion I was looking in my mirrors at the sound of approaching sirens before realizing they were part of the story. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

In the city of bikes

In the city of bikes: the story of the Amsterdam cyclist by Pete Jordan 438 pgs.

Pete Jordan, our erstwhile dishwasher relocated to Amsterdam.  As a guy who lives a bit of an impulsive life style, he admits, he decided to go to school there and eventually move there based on a photograph he found in a book that showed cyclists in Amsterdam.  Hey, why not choose where you live based on a photo from the 1950's? 

Once there, Pete is so entranced by the plethora of bikes, he decides he needs to stay.  His new wife, Amy Joy is going to meet him in seven weeks and before even seeing the place, she is enthusiastic about staying.  A decade later and things seem to be going well.

But this book isn't really a fact, there isn't a whole lot of information about Pete and his family.  Instead, this is the history of cycling in Amsterdam.  Meticulously research and written with wit and humor, if you are interested in cycling, Amsterdam or just engaging books, I can recommend this one.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, 532 pages

Mantel offers a detailed and fascinating fictional account of Henry VIII's long crusade to divorce his first wife, Katherine, and marry Anne Boleyn, as seen through the eyes of the king's advisor Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell comes across as an intelligent and fairly modern man, willing to give more credence to the opinions of women and religious heretics than most of his counterparts. Something about him also reminds me a bit of a spider, delicately weaving a web of influence around him, and allowing him incredible power for a man who was born a son of an abusive blacksmith.

A couple problems I had with this book: First of all, most of the characters are men. This isn't a problem in itself, but when you have several of them in a single scene, and each is referred to variously by his title, nickname, surname, and first name, as well as "he" or "him," it becomes REALLY  hard to figure out who's saying what. Eventually, it becomes obvious which "him" is Cromwell, but still... it's not easy to keep these conversations straight. My second beef is simply the same problem I have with most historical fiction that features real people: I just don't know where the historical ends and the fiction begins. I'd like for it to be clearer, though I realize I'm just going to have to accept the ambiguity if I'm reading realistic historical fiction. Which I probably will when I pick up Bring Up the Bodies. I just hope it doesn't take 7 weeks to read like this one did.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Digger Volume One

Digger Volume One by Ursula Vernon 132 pgs.

Digger is a lady wombat who accidentally ends up on an adventure when the tunnel she is digging ends up in a mysterious temple.  She needs to find her way home so heads to the library to do some research.  Digger meets a few interesting characters good and evil.  She is no slouch defending herself but our volume one ends with her in the care of a medical professional recovering from a wound.  Looking forward to the next volume.

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'Make good Art' speech

'Make good Art' speech/Neil Gaiman 86 pgs.

A graduation speech by Neil Gaiman given to the 2012 graduating class of Philadelphia's University of the Arts.  There are the typical contents...a little background, advice, and a motivational push.  All, of course, by the great Gaiman who, I think we all agree, has a way with words.  An added bonus, the design of this slender novel is by graphics great Chip Kidd.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Cooked: A natural history of transformation, by Michael Pollan

A follow-up to The omnivore’s dilemma (one of all-time my favorite books), Pollan casts his wide net over how humans have learned to make potential food ingredients more palatable and nutritious.  Or in the case of modern processed food, succeeded all-too-well in doing the exact opposite as far as nutrition goes. One take-away, bacon is a veritable “umami bomb.”  We all knew that.  Divided into Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, he discusses food cooked over heat, concentrating on barbecue; by water, the magic of combining vegetables, meat, and various herbs and spices in a long-cooking braise; air, the chemistry and complexity of baking a loaf of bread that is both appealing and has retained and intensified the nutrition available in ground whole wheat; and earth – fermentation in all its forms, wine, beer, cheese, pickles, sauerkraut, etc.  – how “rot” both preserves food and has a strong cultural tie for most human groups.  Every page is brings another surprising fact, observation, or lovely image.  I knew there was a reason I love anything pickled, and mourned the passing of my 35 year-old bread starter.  Highly recommended.  480 pp.