97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman

97 Orchard is a study of immigrant food ways and how they97 orchard influenced American eating habits.  The title of the book refers to the address of a tenement building in the Lower East Side of New York City that dates back to the 1860s.  The building now houses the Tenement Museum.

The author focuses on these immigrant groups – the Irish, Germans, German and Eastern European Jews, and Italians – who lived at 97 Orchard Street.  All of these groups experienced depravity at some point during their assimilation into American life.  They also caught the scorn of native-born Americans, who viewed their folkways, particularly the food, with some trepidation.

Eventually, each group stamped their mark on the prevailing culture of the Lower East Side, and their food habits spread beyond the confines of this neighborhood to become commonplace in the United States.

I had heard this book spoken of on the Diane Rehm Show last week.  I don’t know if it was a rerun or not, but the subject matter was interesting.  Read 97 Orchard if you like food history, or New York, or both.  It will give you a hearty respect of the hardy people who settled the Lower East Side.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl

dirt workWhen hiking a trail in a national or state park, I sometimes wonder who puts these walkways together.  Some trails look pretty straight forward; others seem to require some engineering (the stairs at Stone Mountain State Park come to mind).

Dirt Work brings to the forefront the lives of the traildogs – the folks who maintain, build, and occasionally reroute hiking trails.  It is long, arduous work, and the descriptions of a typical workday would make the average one of us ache just thinking about it.

The author began her tenure in trail work after college, when she signed on for a seasonal job in Glacier National Park in Montana.  The team she worked with often hiked miles into the woods for a shift, handling dangerous tools, learning lots of serious lessons, and developing a camaraderie along the way.  The author also met her future husband at Glacier and worked with him there on numerous occasions.

After years in Montana, Byl and her husband moved up to Alaska, first pulling a stint in the Chugach National Forest, and then to the interior, working in Denali National Park.  Alaska proved to be completely different – at Chugach, they boated more often than hiked to work spots, and the weather, especially along the coast, was a change – rain, and more rain.  Denali was another experience – Montana was more forest, Denali a tundra environment.  There were weather and seasonal issues – days of below zero temperature, time stretches of all light or all darkness, etc.

Apparently, Alaska was enough of a draw for them to stay there, although when you get towards the book’s end, you’ll find out that their work takes them away from the national park system.

Dirt Work is a fine poetical observation of the rough and grisly aspects of trail building.  I have a changed and better respect for the traildogs, the unsung heroes of hiking paths.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed

This #1 New York Times bestseller will soon be a major motion picture starringwild Reese Witherspoon.

When Cheryl Strayed was a college senior, her 45-year-old mother died of cancer, leaving Cheryl devastated by grief.  Not long after her mother’s death, Cheryl’s marriage fell apart.

She decided to go – all alone – to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, soon finding herself very poorly prepared for such a feat.  Her backpack, which she nicknamed “Monster,” was so heavy that, when she first put it on her back, she could barely stand up.  How could she possibly carry it for more than a thousand miles?  Her shoes, which had seemed so comfortable in the store, were terribly painful under trail conditions.  She encountered bears and rattlesnakes, freezing temperatures and blazing heat.  Although most people on the trail were wonderfully kind and helpful, she found that a woman alone in the wilderness sometimes encounters dangerous men.  Short of money, longing for a shower or a good meal, she kept pressing on.  In time, without fully realizing how, the long walk helped her to recover from her grief.

Strayed speaks frankly about her thoughts, faults, and weaknesses, and she knows how to involve readers in her joys and struggles.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey by Steve Lowenthal

dance of deathJohn Fahey carved out a little-known but influential niche of acoustic guitar music from the late 1950s on. His recordings, in a guitar style later known as “American Primitivism”, combined fingerpicked blues with other folk and classical music elements.  In his early 20s, Fahey also became an avid 78 collector who went with friends on forays through the deep South to find obscure recordings of pre-war blues performers.

His own earliest music coincided with the exploding folk music scene, and you figure that Fahey would have ridden the wave of the movement, but he largely eschewed the leading proponents of the folk craze – he even despised some of them.  Fahey followed his own counsel when making records and marketing them.  He even started his own label (Takoma) for his own releases and others, including a young Leo Kottke.

Dance of Death explores the art and mind of John Fahey – as a musician who fused the familiar and strange into his own brand of folk music, and as a troubled man with addictions who often pushed away his closest friends, even in his later years, when he lived through homelessness and health issues.

The author, though obviously an admirer of Fahey’s work, does not sugarcoat his treatment of the man – there was quite some darkness behind the fingerpicking genius.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene

sheetrockWhen I read a brief description of my book club’s most recent selection, my first thought was, “I’ll skip this meeting; I can’t imagine being interested in a book about the social history of a small Georgia county.”  However, I did read it, and I didn’t want to miss a single word!

This is the story of the 1970s in McIntosh County, located on the Georgia coast between Brunswick and Savannah.  As the book opens, two trucks, one filled with boxes of shoes, collide on Highway 17, and the less affluent residents of the county carry home the cargo.  They do this with the blessing of the county’s corrupt sheriff!  Later in the book, a woman faces a winter with no sheetrock in her small house to protect her from the cold.  She prays about it, and soon a truck – carrying sheetrock – has a wreck nearby.  One of her relatives brings her two loads of sheetrock, absolutely free.  The sheriff finds ways – sometimes dishonest – to provide some services to the poor, but he and the other local officials do not help these people to find jobs or provide assistance through county services.

The local people have heard of the civil rights movement, but it seems far away and has largely passed them by.  Finally, Thurnell Alston, an uneducated African-American man, becomes a county commissioner; he begins advocating for the poor and working with lawyers committed to social change.  The tale of Alston’s heroic acts and of the sad events of his later years is thoroughly compelling.

Greene’s writing style makes the reader visualize the scenes she portrays and live through the events with the characters.  Praying for Sheetrock reads so much like a novel that, as I read portions to my husband, he kept asking, “Are you sure this isn’t fiction?”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Books to Die For edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke

Modern day mystery writers dish on their favorite mystery novels.books

That’s pretty much the gist of Books to Die For. With its setup, this compilation is a great introduction for the mystery reading novice.  Avid mystery readers will probably enjoy the book as well, and get ideas for more books to devour.

Latter day novels and older classics get their due – and the fact that the reviewers are well-known authors themselves makes this a worthwhile read.  You’re not just getting book reviews so much as recommendations of favorites.  Also, if the reviewers happen to be favorites of yours, you get to see, somewhat, what makes them tick, what has inspired them, etc.

This book got my vote when I noticed that Donna Tartt’s A Secret History was one of the entries – and expounded upon by no less than Tana French.  That’s what I like to see – books not typically considered mysteries are occasionally included in here.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins

tibetanIn his literary life, Tom Robbins has crafted a manic prose that has fueled a (fairly) long list of novels and other prose for over forty years.  This one is his latest, a memoir of sorts that careens forth from the beginning paragraph.  In Tibetan Peach Pie, Robbins turns his crazy lens on his own long life, beginning with his childhood in Depression-era Blowing Rock.

In his eyes, a sleepy mountain town became a stage, where snakes and circuses and ill-reputed road houses took mythic proportions, plenty to jostle his fertile imagination.  As Robbins entered adolescence, his family moved to Virginia, where he continued his misadventures through military school (a tenure enlivened by a fire), college, and then time in the air force, teaching meteorology in Korea, and then discovering the bohemian enclave in Richmond during the 1950s.  But wait, there’s more – this is all within the first 132 pages.

I remember reading Skinny Legs and All and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues back in the mid 1990s and liked the mix of the spiritual and the absurd.  In Tibetan Peach Pie, Robbins continues in these themes and doesn’t disappointment, in a laughable life story not-quite-a-memoir.  Take the journey, and get out of yourself for a while.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


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