Hippie Food : How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by Jonathan Kauffman

In the 1980s, I started going to Deep Roots, a food co-op that thankfully still exists in Greensborohippie food.  There, in their narrow store on Spring Garden Street, you could buy grains and spices in bulk, peruse organic food items of all kinds, and inhale odors not typical of any “regular” grocery store.  The store had a unique vibe, as did the Sunset Cafe, a restaurant down the street that largely served vegetarian dishes, and was usually packed, with a line out the door, on an average night (OK – they did only have about six tables and a counter, but still…).

It was kind of neat, years later, to read a background of the foods that one saw in these places.  Hippie Food provides this amply – it’s a far-ranging historical survey of the natural and organic foods movement that details how different trends, many predating the 60s and 70s, introduced the general public to eating habits that were bizarre for the mainstream consumer of yesteryear, but are fairly commonplace today.

According to Hippie Food, the eating habits of the Vietnam era counterculture were a synthesis of health and vitamin trends that caught on much earlier – let’s say the early Hollywood era, where people became obsessed with youth and vitality – with ingredients from different cultures (tofu, yogurt, brown rice, etc.).  Their eating habits went hand in hand with the revolutionary spirit of the times, and were at odds with the prepackaged and processed norm that the American public ate.

As alternatives to a capitalistic profit-driven food economy, like-minded people started farm communes and food co-ops all over the country.  With a lack of proper business models, though, lots of these institutions faded as the movement changed and as people aged out of their hippie ideals.  Some managed to fit their alternative versions of food economics into the mainstream mindset.

Eventually, what was considered weird and radical became accepted.  As you step through your average grocery store of today, you’ll see foodstuffs that wouldn’t be there fifty years ago.  Eating locally remains a rallying cry, farmers markets are popular, and there’s still a decided determination to develop an economy beyond the big corporation – something more people-oriented.

From my reading of Hippie Food, I think that the outward thinkers of 40-50 years ago were more idealistic, but way more green behind the ears than today’s organic farmers.  I think they were more resourceful – they had to be, considering the absence of quick social media that we rely on in the present time.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


There Is No God and He Is Always with You by Brad Warner

there is no GodIn recent years, there’s been a fair amount of debate on the existence of God.  Depending on which side (atheist or believer) there is rarely any common ground, and we rarely hear another take on the subject.

In this book, the author, a Zen Buddhist monk and occasional punk rock musician, re-approaches the concept of a deity in a series of conversational chapters.  The hard questions of the universe, death, meditation, and even suicide are fair game.  Warner doesn’t purport to have the answers, and part of the frustration, and perhaps whimsy of his book is that he often raises more questions.

The appeal of this book is his style.  Warner doesn’t talk down to his reader.  Throughout, he remains personable and humorous, and even if you walk away quizzically from reading his book, it’ll get you thinking about how you approach the idea of God, whether you believe in one or not.


The book is not a dry tome.  There’s discussion of spirituality for sure, but you also get lots of Warner’s back history, and apparently he has had an interesting life as a musician, filmmaker, and Buddhist monk.  He has traveled a fair bit; locales in Japan, the Zen retreat of Tassajara in California, and even Northern Ireland all play into the picture.

Other books by Brad Warner include Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, Sit Down and Shut Up, Sex, Sin, and Zen, and Don’t Be a Jerk and Other Practical Advice from Dgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

A father loses his wife and infant child and goes to near-mythological lengths to findchangeling them.

Apollo Nagwa is the son of a Ugandan woman and an American father.  His dad left them when Apollo was quite young; memories of his father reverberate in repeated nightmares throughout Apollo’s childhood.  His only connection with his dad are his nightmares and a nondescript box with mementos and a favorite Maurice Sendak book.

Being of a bookish sort, Apollo parlays his knowledge into a used and rare book business.  Most of his stock he buys from estate sales and such, and the occasional rare book is just that – a rare tidbit that keeps his business barely running.

It’s during his browsing of a book sale at a library branch that he meets the love of his life.  Emma is a small woman of determination, a librarian who steals Apollo’s heart.  They marry, she gets pregnant, and they have a most unnatural natural birthing on a broken down subway car.  Brian, named for Apollo’s long-gone father, is their new addition.

Sounds like the beginnings of young family bliss?  Think again – things quickly become crazy.

Emma has a period of postpartum depression.  She then loses interest in the baby almost entirely.  By contrast, Apollo is the doting daddy – he takes their child everywhere, and posts an insane amount of baby pictures to Facebook.

In an unspeakable act of violence, Emma tears apart what’s left of their idyllic existence, and she and the baby are gone.  After hospitalization and imprisonment, Apollo goes on his own hero’s journey through the five boroughs to find his wife and child, helped by his friend Patrice, a war veteran turned computer geek, and egged on by a nerdy stranger interested in a crazy-good book find of Apollo’s.

The Changeling uses themes from myths and fairy tales, along with modern takes on technology and race, to spin its intriguing yarn of betrayal, love, and hard knocks.  The book is a rambling read, well-written and with plenty of unnerving jolts – it kept my interest up, even when reading it on an iPhone.

There be witches and monsters in the Big Apple.

The library has The Changeling in book form and eBook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Deep Winter by Samuel W. Gailey

deep winterIt begins with an innocent visit to a friend’s home.

Danny Bedford is a gentle giant of a man.  Years after suffering brain damage as a child during an accident that took the lives of his parents, Danny manages to make his way to midlife.  He lives in a small room above a laundromat that he cleans for rent and a stipend.

Most people in his small Pennsylvania town avoid and make fun of Danny.  Only Mindy Knolls, a waitress in the local diner and Danny’s friend since childhood, has anything worthwhile to say to him.

When Danny stops by Mindy’s trailer with a present and well wishes for her birthday, he finds her dead, with the perpetrators red-handed.  One of them, the town drunk turned deputy, is quick and mean enough to pin the blame on Danny.  When the sheriff comes calling, the deputy is able to convince him of Danny’s guilt, and Danny, befuddled and injured, is in custody at the doctor’s office.

What appears to be a quick deception changes to a manhunt of epic proportions, when Danny gets away.  A state policeman becomes involved, and Mindy’s twin brothers also join the hunt in their own fashion, with revenge on their mind.

The town of Wyalusing will lose some population before the next blizzard.

Deep Winter is a tense, gritty story of sad souls locked into a small town grind where low wages are a living and booze the main outlet.  The book is also an extended study of bullying, its repercussions into adulthood, and how individuals and a community reject a person for being different.

The weather, which gives the book its name, is a relentless adversary.  The descriptions of the snow, the menace of the woods, and the treacherous conditions of driving all drive up the scariness of the story.  Also, the novel takes place in the early 1980s, so easy access to a cell phone is not the case.

There are several points of view in the novel, and you have to get used to some time shifts and past memories that throw the narrative occasionally, but on the whole, Deep Winter is an engaging rural noir thriller.  I was at turns horrified by the violence and callousness of some characters, and gladdened by the humanity of others.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Last Castle : The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan

The Vanderbilt name during the late 1800s conjured images of opulence and immenseLast Castle wealth.  As a scion of this moneyed family, George W. Vanderbilt inherited in a big way, and spent most of his fortune building what would become the largest house in the United States.

Whereas his extended family made their homes mainly in New York City and Newport, George looked farther afield, into the mountains near Asheville, NC.  Here he found the climate congenial, began buying up thousands of acres there, and employed the best in their fields to design and create his grand estate.

In his mid-thirties, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, descended from some of New York’s oldest families.  Edith was level-headed and charity minded, and brought these strong attributes to her role as mistress of Biltmore House.  She and George were active in the community, contributing funding and time to a number of pursuits.

Edith shouldered on when George died in his early 50s.  The vastness of Biltmore Estate and the costs to run it almost overwhelmed her, and Edith had to sell off certain interests of the estate, including a huge chunk of land to the federal government, which later became the core of Pisgah National Forest.

As a way of raising capital, the family began charging admission to the house in 1930.  Although it took years for the venture to make a profit, the move to open it to the public kept Biltmore House from neglect and the wrecking ball.

The Last Castle is a detail-packed account of the biggest house of the Vanderbilt family, the ordeals of building and financing it, and the ultimate triumph of its owners to keep it despite obstacles.  The author portrays George and Edith with compassion – they were not numb one percenters, but lively people who had consideration for others.  While they were decidedly rich and lived that way, they learned from and affiliated with the common person, and understood that their grand estate functioned by the work of many.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Logical Family by Armistead Maupin

Logical FamilyLogical Family follows the life of Armistead Maupin, who first made his mark in the literary world as the writer of a daily serial that began in the 1970s for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This serial would evolve into the long-lived and much-loved Tales of the City series, nine in all, that recount the juicy backstories of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane.

Maupin has quite a backstory – originally from Raleigh, he grew up with a conservative southern father and somewhat more tolerant mother.  In his young adulthood, Maupin was politically conservative himself (he even pulled a stint working for Jesse Helms), served in the navy during the Vietnam War, then spent his post- military life writing for several jobs and generally finding himself, and his sexuality.

Maupin’s move to San Francisco in the early 1970s provided him with a much needed community; he found there his “logical family” that he lacked earlier in life.  And in writing the serial that became Tales of the City, he tackled a number of issues that pertained to gay life in San Francisco at the time – the shooting of Harvey Milk, the AIDs epidemic, etc.

Although he’s written a few standalone novels (The Night Listener comes to mind) and now this memoir, The Tales of the City series remains Maupin’s best known batch of work.  I can’t attest to the series as a whole, but I did read the first four books years ago, and then the final (The Days of Anna Madrigal) much more recently and enjoyed them all very much.

In Logical Family, I liked how Maupin chronicled his changing relationships with his family.  Even when he had differences with them (especially his father), he managed to maintain a sense of civility with his parents that was touching, and everyone involved grew with the years – there was way more endearment here than bitterness.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



The Inside Out Man by Fred Strydom

A hapless jazz pianist gets a lucrative offer that at first seems too easy and asinside out man time passes, drives him to extreme measures.

Bent has fended for himself since his mother’s death when he was still in his teens.  A gifted musician, he ekes out a half-life playing a few gigs a week.  Bent has no family, no girlfriend – really no connections, other than the handful of establishments that will let him tickle the ivories for the door.

The worldly and mysterious Leonard Fry appears at a club where Bent plays and offers him an insane amount of money to play piano at his country estate for a weekend party.  Bent goes for it – and then with some trepidations, he accepts another offer from Leonard after the party.  The deal?  Bent has to lock Leonard in a room in the mansion for one year and feed him three times a day through a slot in the door.  In return, Bent gets free run of the house and cars and a huge cash settlement at the end of a year’s time.

It sounds simple enough, but Bent quickly gets cabin fever, or as much as one can get in an enormous country house.  His dreams become stranger and more vivid.  He has an unfortunate accident while driving one of Leonard’s cars, emerging unscathed but with a great deal of guilt.  From an uncanny start, he soon meets an assumed ex-lover of Leonard’s, and begins a relationship with her.

From his self-imposed exile, Leonard appears to know way more of Bent’s daily activities than is humanly possible.  He knows about Bent’s accident, and is fully aware of his affair.  Leonard starts to taunt Bent, and Bent gets back at him.

Then Bent gets truly unhinged.

The Inside Out Man tracks one man’s breakdown of sanity and identity as he trades drudgery for luxury and finds out the hard way that it was never worth it.  The book is a page-turner (or page-burner, as a review excerpt puts it on the cover) that ratchets up finely but left me confused at the end.  Who is Bent, exactly?

(William Hicks, Information Services)