Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: "Magpie: Sweets and Savories from Philadelphia's Favorite Pie Boutique"

Magpie: Sweets and Savories from Philadelphia's Favorite Pie BoutiqueMagpie: Sweets and Savories from Philadelphia's Favorite Pie Boutique by Holly Riccardi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This pie book is great for someone who wants to go beyond the basics. If you're an avid baker, you'll enjoy some adventurous twists on classics (cranberry meringue! blueberry rhuby rose! peach raspberry orange blossom!) You'll also see how Holly Riccardi explores her Pennsylvania German roots with savory pie recipes such as beef potpie and ham loaf pie. I can't wait to use her chicken potpie as a framework recipe to using up some of my Thanksgiving leftovers, and I'll have a great time trying some different variations on fruit pies when summer rolls around and more fruit is in season. Some of Riccardi's herb and spice choices are just fascinating (pink pepper in apple pie, black pepper in shoo-fly pie, basil-infused whipped cream.)

Some of the ingredients will appeal to foodies, but unless you live in a food desert with no access to the internet, ingredients such as lavender buds and orange flower water shouldn't be too difficult to find. I don't live in a major metropolitan area by any stretch of the imagination, but I've had decent luck with Amazon, Williams Sonoma, and various brick-and-mortar food boutiques in my town as sources for hard-to-find ingredients.

The book includes a comprehensive guide to creating the best pie crust possible, which will be helpful to beginners, but a bit too tl;dr for seasoned bakers. Still, sometimes a fresh perspective is welcome when embarking down a familiar baking path, and Riccardi's voice is instructive without being patronizing.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't like minimalism.

Bad minimalist philosophy spouts vague platitudes ("Society places too much emphasis on things.") and doesn't account for hobbies or why humans would be better with less stuff. The end goal is vague. For example, some theories on minimalism encourage those who pursue it to have only 100 possessions. Why 100? Will owning 101 possessions make you a breath away from total enlightenment? I think minimalism is a garish practice when it's made public, and its followers take on an air of smug superiority, like a race to see who can own the least amount of stuff ("Well I only own 99 things!") It's almost as bad as those who seek to own a lot of stuff. The sense of self-righteousness is the same on both ends of the spectrum. Minimalism is not supposed to be a competition.

My relationship with my things is my business, but I've been a cluttery person my whole life. Odds and ends litter virtually every flat surface in my apartment. I knit and cook, and I have skeins of yarn and kitchen gadgets out the wazoo. I have dozens of cookbooks and cooking magazines, huge stacks of knitting patterns, multiple needles and notions in every corner of the house. My apartment is well lived in, and its contents are a testament to the things that make me happy.

I picked up Marie Kondo's book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," because I'd heard good things about it, as well as a great deal of backlash. Much of the criticism was that Kondo comes across as smug and her methods extreme. Some of the 1-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads call Kondo crazy, criticizing her Shinto-based beliefs that our possessions have a spirit and we should respect our living space. Other comments were of the "what-about-me" type, where someone would say "What about my husband and five kids? What am I supposed to do with their stuff? This book is only for single people living alone!" which isn't necessarily true. Those comments were rude and completely missed the point of the book.

Another part of the book that was criticized was the idea of discarding books. I can say with certainty, as a person who reviews a book a week, that I already do this and bibliophiles can do this, too. My house isn't swimming with books. I have a big moving box that houses all of the books I want to donate. When it gets full, I'll find a place to donate my books. Sometimes, I find books that I think my friends and family would like, so I give them away as gifts. Most of them are ARCs or galley copies, so they can't be sold, and they can't just sit in my house. I've NEVER found myself missing a book I've reviewed and later discarded. Too many new books are published every month for me to worry about one I've read a few months ago. I keep all of my book reviews in files on my computer in case my editor has a question about one of them, but I don't personally go back and read any of them.

Kondo's book fundamentally transformed the way I view my things. While I may never part with my vast collection of small kitchen appliances, no matter how infrequently I might use them, I've found myself looking at some of the books and clothes I have and asking myself why they're even still in my house. I got rid of some uncomfortable shirts, perfume samples that didn't even smell good, cookbooks containing unappetizing recipes that were given to me as gifts, and clutter and papers that were doing nothing more than taking up space. While I thought my living space was a testament to what made me happy, some things just didn't belong there.

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" will probably affect the way I purchase things in the future. Usually, I purchase clothes for work when I have a coupon to a store. While some of the items there might not fit quite right or be in my taste, I'll purchase them anyway because I'm getting them at a discount and I have to wear something to work. In the future I might shop when I have a coupon, but refrain from buying anything unless it "sparks joy" or I'm absolutely thrilled with it.

Kondo describes our attachment to things as our way of holding on to the past or expressing anxiety for the future, and I feel like this is exactly right. And I think this idea is partly why the negative reviews of this book seemed so angry. We don't want to think of our way of living as the wrong way to do things. We can see this in the way we vehemently defend other aspects of our lifestyle such as our dietary choices and religious beliefs. It's healthy to reevaluate the way we live our lives, whether we read political news that doesn't align with our beliefs or we look at our things and determine it's time to let some of it go.

Maybe I'm not as critical of minimalism as I was when I started reading "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," but I won't start putting a quota on my possessions any time soon.

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Monday, August 3, 2015

Support for your book should come from an organic, genuine place

Among all of the things I do, a decent chunk of my time is spent reading and reviewing books for a small book review service. They're not in the business of writing vanity reviews (or so I'm told,) but in their sponsored review program, they tend to want their reviews skewed positively, focusing more on the good aspects of any given book and forming any criticisms constructively.

This past week, I ran into an author who, even though I gave him a 5-star review, he wanted to change some of the wording in my review to make it reflect more favorably on him as an author. In his book, his characters were overwhelmingly male, and he took issue with the fact that I pointed this out at all. Even though one of the women in the book was a nagging hen and the other was trotted out as a prize/motivation for the protagonist to improve himself at the end, the other two were real badasses. But I digress.

When I told him I wouldn't change my review for him, he tried to argue that what I said was "factually inaccurate." How can an objective criticism be factually inaccurate?

Rewording what I initially said about his book would have reframed my opinion into something I did not mean to say. I would have been attaching my name to words I didn't really believe in. It would have been a disingenuous, unauthentic glance at his work, rather than an honest one.

I've been reviewing books for about 10 years now, and I feel like this whole situation just opens the many different conversations authors should be having about how they should conduct themselves with professional reviewers and with their other author friends. There's a small pocket of authors out there who are ridiculously pretentious, have terrible egos and who bristle at the slightest criticism of their work. This behavior is compounded when they're self-published because all of their marketing and social media presence is up to them and not an agent or publishing house. Suzanne Collins wouldn't sit on Amazon for hours, arguing with her detractors. Robin Hobb doesn't give a flying fig about 3-star reviews (she's said so on Twitter.) Their work has been verified as good by the publishing houses that published it.

Purchasing a review isn't a slimy practice, in general, if you're paying for someone to be honest and you're open to constructive criticism from an objective source. It becomes slimy when you write a note to your reviewer asking them to reconsider their rating, or argue with Amazon reviewers over what they said about your precious life's work.

The thankless task of criticizing literature is slimy when authors rely on their network of author friends to boost their Amazon ratings. I'm going to read a book because the synopsis sounds good or your book cover is pretty or because a friend recommended it, not because your author friends all gave it 5 stars.

Criticism of your work is something you can take or leave. You can say, "Well it's clear this person didn't read my book, or they wouldn't have said XYZ." But it's telling when multiple reviewers (NOT your friends) start having the same criticisms of your book. Maybe you shouldn't dismiss them. Maybe you should take these things to heart and work on them for your next masterpiece that your friends and family will undoubtedly love. Strangers on the internet aren't going to hold your hand and stroke your hair and tell you you're the next George R. R. Martin. But they've taken the time to read your book. Maybe you should listen to them.