‘On the Noodle Road; from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta … a True Story’ by Jen Lin-Liu (Allen & Unwin) Chinese-American food writer and founder of a cooking school, Lin-Liu visited Italy for the first time on her honeymoon. There, attending a pasta-making class, she became fascinated with how similar the Italian pasta dishes were with traditional Chinese cooking. Returning home she resolved to follow The Silk Route to trace the origins and record the variations of pasta. In the book we follow Lin-Liu’s travels through barren desserts, mountains, green pastures, bazaars, mosques and kitchens starting in China and travelling through Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and finishing in Italy in search of noodles. Interwoven with stories, anecdotes and history in each country, we enjoy reading about Lin-Liu cooking in private kitchens and each chapter concludes with a handful of recipes from the region from hand-rolled noodles, to Persian rice to cheese tortellini with sage-butter sauce. This book was a fascinating insight into a variety of cultures including their ingredients, landscape, cuisine, dress, attitudes and history. Lin-Liu writes with a real passion for food and interest in the cooks and their craft in a style which is both contagious and delightful and don’t you just LOVE the front cover of this book, designed by Alissa Dinallo?
Read my interview with Alissa Dinallo here.
Visit Alissa Dinallo’s website here.
‘One Summer; America 1927’ by Bill Bryson (Transworld Publishers; Random House) Bill Bryson is such a great raconteur – he structures his books in intriguing ways. In this book he picks a five month period (May – September 1927 which was summer in USA) when, in this very short space of time, some amazing things happened that changed the progress and history of America. Divided into chapters named after the months May to September, we start off in America in May1927 with a thriving stock market, an unusual president, a terrible flood, and we move through the five months that show how an aviator named Charles Lindbergh – a man who was completely unknown at the beginning of summer but became the most famous man on earth by the end. We hear of the improbable baseball hero, Babe Ruth, the reasons why Al Capone had a reign of terror, the eccentric nature of Gutzon Borglum (the sculptor of Mount Rushmore) and how Henry Ford’s company changed the face of the earth. An epilogue at the end of the book lets us know what happened to each of the main characters discussed in the book after September 1927. I am already looking forward to Bryson’s next book.
‘1,339 QI Facts To Make Your Jaw Drop’ compiled by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson and James Harkin (Faber & Faber; Allen & Unwin) I bought this book whilst on holidays with my eldest daughter and during the rest of the holidays I’m sure I pestered her with shouts of, ‘listen to THIS!’ The QI teams and their ‘elves’ seek out strange and outrageous facts for their TV show and books. Who knew that ponytails were outlawed in China in 1911; that the smallest known brain in a healthy person belonged to Anatole France (the winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature); that Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff was called Donald Regan; that George Orwell’s French teacher was Aldous Huxley; that Mozart once proposed to Maria Antoinette,;that Margaret Thatcher was offered the passport number 007 but turned it down; and that Chinese checkers were invented in Germany? This is another great book from that very funny team at QI.
‘The Men Who United the States; the Amazing Stories of the Explorers, Inventors and Mavericks Who Made America’ by Simon Winchester (William Collins; HarperCollins) Divided into sections as the five classical elements; wood, earth, water, fire and metal, Winchester describes the history of USA and how the country was formed. Having recently become a US citizen, Winchester delves into what shaped and made America. We read of when America’s story was dominated by wood, when its story went beneath the earth, when the story travelled by water, was fanned by fire and told through metal. We hear of pioneers whose achievements helped to fortify and unify America including the early explorers, the influence of the landscape and the turn of world events that allowed the Louisiana Purchase and the annexing of Texas. Inventions of electricity, telegraph, telephone, railroads, radios, television and the highway numbering system (even numbers run east to west, increasing to the south and odd numbers run north to south, increasing to the west) and the bizarre naming story of Route 66 are all explained. Intriguing stories such as how macadam construction of roads was named after John McAdam and that workers on the road knew if the stones were the right size by popping them into their mouths to check the stone’s size! The importance and navigation of the river systems, the development of the Panama Canal and the story of Matoaka who inspired the character Pocahontas are all lovingly described with engaging detail creating a thorough and interesting history.
‘The Boy on the Wooden Box; How the Impossible Became Possible… on Schindler’s List’ by Leon Leyson with Marilyn J. Harran and Elisabeth B. Leyson (Simon and Schuster) Sadly, Leyson died just before this book was published. He was one of the youngest people on Schindler’s List. Not thinking that anyone would be interested in his story, Leyson rarely spoke about his experiences until the movie ‘Schindler’s List’ was released. Born in Poland, at ten years old Leyson was forced into ghettoes, concentration camps and was separated from his family during the Holocaust in WWII. Forced to work at Oskar Schindler’s Emalia factory in a sub-camp, Leyson was such a small 13 year-old that he had to stand on an overturned wooden box to reach the controls of the machine. This book is the only memoir written by a former Schindler’s List child and it captures the innocence of the small boy who had to witness and experience the horrors of the Holocaust. Later in his life in USA, Leyson was re-united with Schindler who recognised and talked to him. This book is indeed a remarkable memoir of Leyson; of hope, bravery and a man of incredible dignity.
Read my interview with Elisabeth B.Leyson here.
‘The Games; the Extraordinary History of the Modern Olympics’ by Carole Wilkinson (Black Dog Books; Walker Books) This is a great and fascinating history of the Olympics. Not only do we hear about the concept of the games from ancient Greece times, but the history and political changes. I loved reading that the first thing the competitors at an ancient Olympic games had to do was to pull up the weeds that had grown in the stadium since the last games! Other fascinating facts include that in the1900 Olympic Games in Paris fishing was one of the sports; in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis USA a runner hitched a lift in the marathon; in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm a wrestling match went on for nearly 12 hours; in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki a long-distance runner unnerved other competitors, spectators and policemen as he chatted to them all in various languages before winning the 5,000 race, 10,000 race and then the first marathon he had ever run; in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico building in the Olympic village site was delayed while archaeologists excavated a 1,000 year old Aztec pyramid that the workers had unearthed and in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow two sets of identical twins came 1st and 2nd in the rowing.
‘Have a Little Faith; a True Story’ by Mitch Albom (Hyperion; HarperCollins) Albom is asked by an 82-year-old rabbi from his hometown to deliver his eulogy. Whilst setting out to understand the rabbi better, Albom gets to know a Detroit pastor who preaches to the poor and homeless in a decaying church with a hole in its roof. This book explores the Christian and Jewish faiths, African-American and white people, impoverished and affluent situations and we are made aware how different people relate to faith; the rabbi reflects on his faith as his death approaches and the Detroit pastor relies on it to keep himself and his church afloat. Albom explores endurance under conflict, forgiveness and the importance of faith in trying times. The book becomes a perspective and reflection of faith, tolerance, service and love. Although the texts, prayers and histories of both the rabbi and pastor are different, we come to see that in many aspects beliefs are similar. Albom says that when he was asked to do the eulogy ‘I thought I was being asked a favour. In truth, I was being given one’. An interesting read about the strength of friendship and the power of faith.
‘A Very Short History of the World’ by Geoffrey Blainey (Penguin) This book is a comprehensive tour of human history from Africa two million years ago to the world as it is now. We look at changes in diet to profound discoveries, mighty empires and the blurring of seasons, night and day and countries. It was a great reminder of why did the world wars start? How did apartheid happen? Which animals were domesticated and why? How did countries form? Why did certain people come to power? What impact does topography have on a nation? Which inventions and discoveries were the results of progress and which aided progress? How did languages begin? and a cornucopia of other fascinating and varied topics. Some parts of the book were a reminder of things I had studied and others were completely new and enlightening to me. Blainey writes in an engaging and clear style to create a very accessible read and overview of the history of the world.
‘Falling Leaves; The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter’ by Adeline Mah Yen (Penguin) One of my sisters, Kate, recommended this book to me and I found it a fascinating, but heartbreaking story. It’s the story of Yen Mah who was born in 1937 inTianjin around the time of revolution and civil war in her native country, China. As the youngest child of an affluent family who enjoyed rare privileges during a time of political and cultural upheaval, Yen Mah was rejected by her father as Yen Mah’s mother died giving birth to her and she was inhospitably treated by her stepmother and brothers. We see how China’s political upheaval was intermingled with Yen Mah’s childhood to create a period of fear, isolation and humiliation for her. This story is of Yen Mah’s determination to survive the pain of a lonely childhood and a testament to the most basic of human needs; love, acceptance and understanding.
‘War Horse’ by Michael Morpurgo (Egmont; Hardie Grant) What I loved about this book is that it’s written from the perspective a horse, Joey, during WWI. As a young farm horse in the English countryside, Joey is sold to the army to be in the English cavalry and is thrust into the midst of war on the Western Front. We see the horse’s perspective of the waste and meaningless of war. Joey starts the war on the side of the Allies, gets lost on no-man’s land and spends some time on the German side of the trenches, so we see the plight of both English and German soldiers and the horrors they witnessed. The book does not have a political or biased agenda which is very refreshing and thought-provoking. According to the legend, this book was inspired by an elderly soldier from WWI who, one night by the fireside in an English countryside pub, told Morpurgo the story of his beloved horse and his time serving in WWI. I was lucky enough to see the magnificent ‘War Horse’ production where the Handspring Puppet Company brings the full-scale horses and other animals to life on stage. It was a wonderful realisation of the book.