Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen

The latest in Susannah Seton’s Simple Pleasures series is Simples Pleasures of the Kitchen (Conari Press, Boston, 2005). Seton gives us a wonderful anthology of food stories, recipes, crafts, quotes, and clips from famous works, contributed by writers around the world, including Seton herself.

In his introduction to the book, Jonathan King declares, ‘My kitchen is without doubt the heart of my home.’ Susannah Seton takes this up to make her book an attraction for any and every member of a home through all the seasons of the year. Corresponding to the four seasons of the year, the book has four divisions: Spring Flings, The Savor of Summer, Autumn’s Abundance, and Cozying Up in Winter. All sections teach a lot: cooking, decorating, making kitchen calendars, napkins, and candleholders, and many things that one needs in a home kitchen. Common to all the items are two merits: simplicity and brevity. For readership, this means ease and alacrity to practice one’s hands on the items presented. What pleasure lies in preparing a simple snack and relishing it, you get to know from Seton’s book.

Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen is not for the gourmand only. It is a book of memories stirred by things as simple as a nice cup of coffee, or a loaf of hot bread. Writers share the memories of their parents, grandparents, family, houses, pets, and rides-everything that inspired the soul with a tickle in the stomach. Some of these are nostalgic, others just light and entertaining, and still others motivating. Modes change with flavors.

Among the micro-items of the book are interesting quotes by some very celebrated names like Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare, Henry James, Cervantes, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and many others, all joining life with food. Proverbs of some languages tell us cultural food themes. And of course there are interesting bits of information, as one by Boyd Matson: “Believe it or not, Americans eat 75 acres of pizza a day.”

Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen is a book for all those who eat and know its joy. Those who do not can get it from Susannah Seton’s book.

ISBN: 1-57324-871-1



Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Virtual Community

‘Anyone interested in the next twenty years must read this book’ marks the Financial Times on the back cover of Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community (Secker & Werburg Limited, 1994). The remark holds well for all those who are interested in the history of communication via computers. Today’s worldwideweb has a history. The Virtual Community ventures to explore its development and evolution since the 1970’s ARPANet, the first computer network created by the US Defense Department.

Rheingold, of Virtual Reality’s fame, is a technology guru. He is at home in analyzing technological devices and systems, in tracing their roots and pointing to their prospects. The Virtual Community has a lot to convey on computer communications: modems, hypertext documents, bulletin-board systems, operating systems, Gopher, Multi-User Dungeons, computer wizards, channel operators, and much more. The author covers virtually everything that is used in what is termed ‘computer-mediated communications’ (CMC). Like all good books, this one makes specialized things simple and easy to grasp.

Of particular interest to regular e-mail users is an illustration of messages made via the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), the first practical Internet allowing e-mails around the world. The messages included are varied from a few lines on weather to accounts of one’s spiritual concerns. Rheingold weaves them into a story of his personal experience of WELL. Instances of WELL messages permeate more than one chapter.

While The Virtual Community essentially narrates the evolution of CMC in the US, it dedicates a chapter to that in Japan. The author tells how his Japanese acquaintance, Aizu-san and Hattori-san, “literally opened a whole new world” to him. Interesting things are conveyed like the ban on using modems in Japan until 1985 and Aizu’s observation that Americans wanted to use CMC primarily to connect with each other, and only secondarily to download information.

Perhaps, the most significant aspect of The Virtual Community is its prophetic concern regarding the influence of a computerized system of information and communication. It informs of the “innocent Frenchmen who died under police gunfire as a result of a glitch in a poorly designed police computer network”. The computerized community is not seen as an essentially conflict-free environment. It always runs the risk of becoming a “camouflaged Panoptican”. Rheingold’s genius points out the way the number of owners or telecommunication channels is narrowing to a tiny elite while the reach and power of the media they own expand. He summarizes the concept of “electronic democracy” in the question “Which scenario seems more conducive to democracy, which to totalitarian rule: a world in which a few people control communications technology that can be used to manipulate the beliefs of billions, or a world in which every citizen can broadcast to every other citizen?”

ISBN: 0-436-20208-5

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism:The Turn of the Screw

ISBN: 0-312-08083-2

Priscilla L. Walton reminds us that The Turn of the Screw has been called the “small problem child” of Henry James’s fiction. We remember James for the intricacies of his psychologically woven plots, both in novel and in short fiction. The Turn of the Screw is one such instance of his work. The novella (or novel) is a first person account of a young governess in the house of a rich widower with two children. The hook in the story is the apparent presence of a ghost in the house which, at times, seems to possess one of the children. The duality of interpretation lies in whether it is a ghost story (the ghost is real) or a case study of madness (the governess is psychotic).

The series ‘Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism’ does more than explaining the meaning of James’s story. Published by Bedford Books (1995; Boston, New York), the book presents practical criticism on The Turn of the Screw in the form of essays, edited by Peter G. Beidler.

Preceding the story are the biographical and historical contexts. After the story’s text, a critical history of the work outlines the significant situations and briefly relates them to different schools of literary criticism.

Four important schools of criticism are first defined and explained, and then a critic from each field interprets The Turn of the Screw by his/her respective approach. Wayne C. Booth comments on the reader-response interpretation of the story followed by the specialized Deconstructionist perspective of Shoshana Felman. Stanley Renner takes a Psychoanalytic view of the governess’ encounters with the ghost. Priscilla L. Walton poses the issue of Feminine Subjectivity with reference to the experiences of the young governess. Bruce Robbins offers a Marxist view of the governess’ position in a rich man’s house.

A glossary of Critical and Theoretical Terms, at the end of the book, helps the reader understand the basic concepts addressed in the essays. Still, the book is essentially an academic read. For students of literature and writers, especially those who adhere to Structuralism, it is a Bedford gift that makes more meanings of works like James’s; works that need critical exploration to appear meaningful at all.

The last thing to note about the book is, perhaps, its glossy title cover: a front view of the same house appearing in four squares; graphically, a signal to multiply one’s viewpoint.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Great Short Stories of the English Speaking World

Great Short Stories of the English Speaking World (Vol. 1) is one book that brings to readers 'Best of the Best' in the world of short fiction. Published first in 1977, in hard cover by The Reader's Digest Association, it is an anthology of fifty one masterly written stories by some of the world's most celebrated authors. Among these are names as Jack London, D.H. Lawrence, Eudora Welty, Somerset Maugham, Edgar Alan Poe, Frank Stockton, Ernest Hemingway, and so on.

In her introduction to the book, Rumer Godden regards the astonishing variety of the stories as the most striking aspect of the collection. And this accords with almost every element of the anthology. Thematically, the stories sweep a remarkable range from Carson McCullers' fears of an insecure kid (The Haunted Boy), to Margaret Drabble's heart-felt memories of love (The Reunion), and Jack London's frailty of man in the openness of nature (To Build a Fire).

The stories have a sundry style, from W.S. Maugham's character-centered Louise, to Marc Connelly's Coroner's Inquest with abstract characters, and Ring Lardner's epistolary I Can't Breathe. Narration too varies from tale to tale.

The most elegant feature of the anthology however comes in the form of its semantic richness. Virtually no part of human existence remains untouched in one or another of these literary pieces; be it the reshuffling of a dormant consciousness (Eudora Welty's The Key), the tragedy of war (Bates' The Young Man from Kalgoorlie), or the learning of a young one to live on its own (O'Flaherty's His First Flight).

Certainly these stories are deep in the context of their meanings but that does not imply their being all somber or overly serious. The Magic Shop, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Lumber Room, and the fantastic The Lady or the Tiger are some of those stories that engage the reader thoroughly in their witty and superb weavings of the plot.

Finally, Great Short Stories of the English Speaking World is for all audiences. With Kipling's The Elephant's Child to Joy Cowley's The Silk, one book has bridged the reading interests of three generations.

And yes, at the end of the book, there is also a list of short biographical notes for every author in the collection;

In one sentence, this is the English Short Story World for a short fiction lover whether a beginner or an erudite.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Peer Prejudice and Discrimination

Dr. Harold Fishbein, professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati, stands among the modern forerunners of Developmental Psychology. His book Peer Prejudice and Discrimination (1966, Westview Press) speaks for it. Winner of the 1996 Eleanor Maccoby Book Award in Developmental Psychology, it forms a treatise on the evolutionary basis of human prejudice and subsequent discrimination.

Starting with simple definitions, the author explores the process of prejudicial development with brief histories of certain groups which have been the target of discriminatory treatment. Among these are Females, African-Americans, the Deaf, and the Mentally Retarded.

Part of the interest the author arouses lies in the discovery of the role our genetic apparatus plays in shaping our attitude. The topic Behavior Genetics reckons modern humans as ‘Hunter-Gatherer Minds in Post-Industrial Bodies.’ The assumption the book makes is that human genes are quite old and hence poorly capable to deal with the rapidly transformed societies. This seems to intimate that humans are not responsible for their own prejudice; only their genes are. But it is already imparted that genetic contribution to overall human behavior is 30 to 60 percent. Hence we are all, to varying degrees, free to make conscious modification of our behavior.

The final of the six chapters deals with strategies of modifying prejudice and discrimination. Two theories are presented to bring about a change in attitude:
The Contact Theory, stressing desegregation of different groups by bringing them together in daily interactions; and The Lewinian Theory, calling for the need to suppress strain in social interactions and hence allow the development of more positive attitudes.

One suggestion Dr. Fishbein makes at the end of the book is that challenging discrimination is more likely to succeed in modifying prejudice than challenging prejudice directly. It’s easy to see why: seeds of prejudice lie in overt discriminatory behavior.

The social implications of Dr. Fishbein’s studies are enormous. Uprooting prejudice and discrimination is the ultimate means of creating a harmonious world where peace reigns oblivious to any threat culturally-rooted in human mind.

ISBN: 9780813330532

A Curtain of Green and Other Stories

From the HBJ Modern Classic series comes Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green and Other Stories in hard cover, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, Orlando, Florida (1991). The book gathers seventeen of Welty’s stories in 228 pages and maintains Katherine Anne Porter’s introduction to the original edition of A Curtain of Green published in 1941.

There are storybooks that have an appeal to a vast majority of readers because of the themes, characters, and situations of the stories. The simplicity implicit in such writing is far from being found in A Curtain of Green… though these stories are rich in meaning and the less express modes of human existence. Katherine Porter points out their complexity in her introduction by commenting ‘the approach is simple and direct in method, though the themes and moods are anything but simple.’

But then there are those who evaluate literary pieces on the criterion of the voices given to felt but not expressed realities of experience. These are the stories for such readers. From Lily Daw and the Three Ladies and Why I live at the P.O. to The Key and A Curtain of Green, there is a dormant power, a potential monster of consciousness that suddenly wakes up into real life, or looks this way, by a seemingly trivial event. In The Key it is the clink of a key at a station’s waiting room that gives voice to the oblivion of relationship. In The Whistle it is the sound of the whistle blown to warn of cold that revitalizes an aging couple’s relationship. And in A Curtain of Green a boy’s smile evokes the repressed rage of a widow who has grown a green natural curtain around her garden, woven with the one around her anxious and vindictive consciousness.
At times, the book feels a collage of scenes from some innocent lunatic’s dreams. Nevertheless, it makes a strong case for peeping into one’s own self, while standing outside of it. This depersonalized objectivity gives A Curtain of Green a quasi-philosophical appeal.

The setting of all the stories is a not-so-big town, and all those who have a fancy for the country side life would certainly feel an ambience worth recalling in them.
The print is simple, and the title cover, just a nice jacket designed to look like the gate to a green curtain. What the lost mien of the lady on the title signifies, the readers are to settle themselves.

In one sentence, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories is a book to enjoy in at least two readings; one to pick up the stories and be mazed by them, and the other to enjoy them.

ISBN: 0-15-123671-2

Reinventing the Future

Good books bridge profound realities to lay minds. Great books do so in an interesting way. Reinventing the Future, by Thomas A. Bass, is one of those books that take the readers to cruise through the maze of scientific research while keeping their giddiness at bay.

Published first in 1994 by Addison-Wesley Company, Reinventing the Future is an academic read in a fairly simple form of interviews with eleven leading scientists of our time. These include: Sarah Hrdy, Luc Montagnier, James Black, Thomas Adeoye Lambo, Etienne-Emile Baulieu, Richard Dawkins, Farouk El-Baz, Bert Sakmann, Jonathan Mann, Norman Packard, and Mary-Claire King. Apart from being Nobel laureates, Bass finds their commonality in that they all see themselves as ‘outsiders and rebels’. The fact that each of these scientist’s work has invoked some controversy, academic or political, is a hook in reading this collection.

The topics addressed are varied, ranging from Dawkins’ socio-biological behavior of humans to Baulieu’s ‘abortion pill’-RU 486, and Packard’s ‘Chaos Cabal’ that tracks the degree of disorder and unpredictability in the universe.

Thomas A. Bass keeps a rather informal mode of questioning so that the personal inclinations behind academic achievements are revealed. In effect, these interviews are inspiring as much as they are informative. Certainly, it is challenging in the content and can prove somewhat disturbing in effect to the orthodox and the conventionalist. But it does open numerous pathways to question and reconsider our concepts of things we tend to take for granted.

Despite all its interesting style and informal easiness of conversation, Reinventing the Future is an academic read. It is a book for the serious mind, active at thinking and ready to question. It is a book to start entering with into the channels of scientific concepts and their implications. Some of the many questions, the book touches on, include:
What is the evolutionary side of sex and mating in primates? What story lies behind the discovery of HIV virus? Is the universe really so well ordered as we have believed it to be? How can the ancient air rapped in the pyramids of Egypt be used to correlate ancient and modern environments? Who controls life, man or gene? Are science and superstition compatible in some societies?

Reinventing the Future is for all those who are interested in mainstream science of our age and its relation to life. For college students and upwards, it is just what the doctor ordered.

ISBN: 0-201-40795-7