These gift books make for presents of mind
by Rebecca Oppenheimer
Holiday shopping frenzy got you down? One of these new literary releases may be just the thing for that avid reader on your gift list. Or pick one up for yourself as a reward for your present-hunting tenacity.
A mainstay of cold-weather holidays from Thanksgiving turkey to New Year's champagne is the feast. In "Eating in Eden" (University of Nebraska, $34.95), editors Etta M. Madden and Martha L. Finch have compiled 13 lively, original essays on American culinary culture. This is a trendy subject, but "Eating in Eden" is broader, deeper and more eclectic than other recent volumes. The contributions explore immigrant foodways, ideological struggles within utopian communes, counterculture cookbooks and cooking on public television -- to name only a few topics. History buffs and food enthusiasts will relish these journeys off the beaten path of American cuisine.
"The Frozen Ship" by Sarah Moss (BlueBridge, $24.95) is a perfect choice for armchair adventurers on a winter's night. Moss delves into a topic that has fascinated humanity for centuries: polar exploration. By examining narratives of expeditions from the Vikings to Winnie-the-Pooh, Moss opens a window on the deepest of human desires and fears in the world's coldest places. Moss has a gift for extracting memorable details -- from harrowing accounts of cannibalism and poisonings, to strangely humorous anecdotes such as one about a naval officer more concerned about his dog than his pregnant wife.
For those who really want to travel far, there's "Blindsight" by Peter Watts (Tor, $25.95), which takes readers to the edge of the galaxy. In the late-21st century, when the living can visit Heaven and romantic relationships are considered perverse, a delegation sets off for deep space to respond to alien communications. The crew members of the Theseus are not your average earthlings: they include a vampire, a linguist with multiple personalities, and Siri Keeton, the narrator, who's had half his brain replaced by an empathetic computer. Watts combines linguistics and science with fascinating characters in a novel that is challenging, clever and thought-provoking.
Turn to "A Good Day to Die," by Simon Kernick (Minotaur, $24.95), for a thrill ride that's closer to home Ð that is, if your home is the seedier side of London. Disgraced English police officer Dennis Milne is living in the Philippines, killing bad guys for a price. When Milne receives word that his former partner on the force has been murdered, he returns to London to ensure that the killers reach a very bad end. Kernick's gifts for pulse-pounding prose and tough-as-nails characters will please readers who like their novels hard-boiled.
Kelly Braffet's "Last Seen Leaving" (Houghton Mifflin, $23) is also a thriller, of sorts; its terrain is the murky places in human relationships that no amount of light can clear. Anne Cassidy is still tormented by the death of her husband years ago on a covert flying mission. She lives in Arizona, hoping the psychic energy of her environment will help her contact him. Anne's daughter, Miranda, has disappeared. Inspired by George, a mysterious man who gave her a ride, she is living "off the grid" in a seaside town. Anne becomes convinced Miranda is in danger and travels cross-country to find her, as Miranda begins to suspect George is a serial killer. Braffet's brilliance lies in her willingness to avoid easy answers or reassuring conclusions. Unease lingers even after the last page is turned.
And don't forget the kids this season! Dale Peck's "Drift House" (Bloomsbury, $7.95) is the perfect choice for youngsters. Susan, Charles and Murray are sent to stay with their eccentric Uncle Farley in Canada. Drift House, Uncle Farley's abode, is aptly named; it is actually a ship that navigates the Sea of Time. The siblings' adventures channel the best of classic children's fiction without being old-fashioned, and Peck tackles the anxieties of modern life without being crass. "Drift House" will leave readers clamoring for the next installment in the series -- "The Lost Cities" (Bloomsbury, $16.95), which hits bookstores in March.
Finally, "The Book That Changed My Life," edited by Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen (Gotham, $17.50), offers recommendations from 71 notable writers: Literary novelists, journalists, mystery writers, children's writers and others have their say, and some of their selections are surprising. Chef Jacques Pepin's pick is Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," for instance. It's great fun seeing how various works influenced their famous fans, and don't be surprised if this book leads you to the perfect gift for that person who has everything.
Rebecca Oppenheimer, a National Book Critics' Circle member, is majoring in American studies at Towson University when not at her home in Stevenson diving into the latest books.
Eating in Eden: food and American utopias, ed. by Etta M. Madden and Martha L. Finch. Nebraska, 2006. 291p index
afp ISBN 0803232519, $34.95
Eating in Eden is a collection of 13 interdisciplinary essays discussing the role of foodways to promote
difference--political, religious, and/or ethnic--through created communities. The collection is divided into three
sections: New World, communal, and strategic utopias. The editors have defined New World utopias as immigrant
communities such as the Puritans or Hindu Americans; communal utopias as the "classic" utopian communities such as
the Shakers, the Amana, and the Oneida; and strategic communities as being of a more political or sensory nature, i.e.,
vegetarian leftist co-ops and PBS television cooking shows. Each essay examines a specific food issue in a particular
community using historical, religious, sociological, and literary analysis to make its arguments. There is a wide variety
of topics discussed in this collection, but it will be thought-provoking to those with an interest in food studies and role of
food in these types of communities. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; upper-division undergraduates
through faculty. -- S. C. Hardesty, Georgia State University
UNIV. OF NEBRASKA PRESS
Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias (Oct., $34.95), edited by Etta M. Madden and Martha L. Finch, demonstrates how food practices in a variety of domestic cultures have reflected the diverse visions of American life.
“History buffs and food enthusiasts will relish these journeys off the beaten path of American cuisine.”–Rebecca Oppenheimer, Arbutus Times