Book Review: Eat the City, by Robin Shulman


Eat the City, by Robin Shulman

Living in Brooklyn, I have a lot of opportunities to “eat local”. I can get pickles from Brooklyn Brine, or wine from the Red Hook Winery. A few friends brew their own beer (and I’m always up for a tasting party!). Knowing that New York City was a big old island covered in farms back in the day, I picked up Robin Shulman’s Eat the City to learn a little bit about the locavores of yore. You know, before “locavore” was a word and before “local and organic” were the buzzwords of the century (food-related buzzwords, anyway).

Shulman divided her book into chapters based on food type, and juxtaposed the modern fishers and foragers with how their industries developed over time in the five boroughs. She covers everything from wine to fish to even sugarcane (yes, people grow sugarcane in New York City!). As a wine lover, I knew a lot of what was covered in the wine chapter, such as the boom of the kosher wine industry during Prohibition as they got exceptions to produce alcohol for religious ceremonies, but every chapter uncovered something I’d never known before. You know I love a good nonfiction book when it’s well-researched, and Shulman clearly did her homework before putting together Eat the City.

Reading through it, I’m not sure if someone that doesn’t live in the boroughs would enjoy it as much as I did. At one point, she mentioned the corner that my beau used to live on: for me, that was exciting, for others? Probably not so much. I liked being able to envision the locations mentioned, but it helped that I’d been to most of the places before: I’ve walked by Red Hook Winery, I’ve walked over the Gowanus “Lavender Lake” Canal. If you’re interested in the history of New York, or urban agriculture, it’s a great book. If you don’t really care about the toxicity levels in the fish people are catching in the East River (or don’t know what the East River is), it may not be as interesting.

One thing is for sure, though: Eat the City is going to make you want to start living off the land if you aren’t already. I have a few herbs growing on my windowsill, but I almost want to go out and plant some tomatoes on my fire escape now, or maybe get a vine of Lambrusco grapes growing in my backyard (that I can’t actually access, oops). Although I don’t think I’ll be harvesting honey anytime soon, the beekeepers can keep their bees, please.

All those pertinent details:

  • Title: Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York
  • Author: Robin Shulman
  • Length: 352 pages (Kindle edition, including endnotes)
  • Genre: nonfiction, history, food and drink
  • Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Buy the book on Amazon here!


Book Review: The Tigress of Forli, by Elizabeth Lev


Tigress of Forli, by Elizabeth LevI’m watching Tom Fontana’s series Borgia: Faith and Fear, and can’t help but wish they’d get around to the Sforza family. I know they must, sooner or later, but I’m impatient. Ever since I finished Showtime’s The Borgias, I’m on a major Sforza kick. So when I saw that there was a biography about Caterina Sforza, I didn’t hesitate to download Elizabeth Lev’s The Tigress of Forli.

Gina McKee played Caterine Sforza on the Showtime series, and I fell in love with her character. She was strong and passionate, but to a fault. She was portrayed as the enemy (the show focuses on the Borgias, after all), but also with sympathy. I was looking forward to reading her biography to see how the writing of her character stacked up. The answer: for what they covered, it was pretty good.

Caterina Sforza was a strong, independent woman in a time where women were rarely strong and independent (sort of like The Widow Clicquot, I must have a thing for ladies-before-their-time). While, throughout her life, her family used her as a political pawn, she was determined to create her own destiny, and that’s the theme that runs through The Tigress of Forli.

Gina McKee as Caterina Sforza

McKee as Caterina Sforza.

Lev may emphasize her strength and skills, but she doesn’t shy away from her faults either: extensive parts are devoted to her shortsightedness, and the consequences of following her heart rather than her head. For this reason in particular, the biography seems pretty objective. Unlike Clicquot, whose early life is almost a mystery, Caterina Sforza was a force to be reckoned with from an early age; her correspondence, movements and relationships are well documented and Lev is generous with the source material.

Before reading The Tigress of Forli, I didn’t know much about Sforza except for her brush with Pope Alexander. After? Gosh, I think I appreciate her even more. Sure, she made some mistakes, but her strength, wit, intelligence and horseback-riding skills make her pretty admirable. Even though Lev doesn’t necessarily aim to make her a sympathetic heroine, Sforza’s actions are enough to speak on their own.

It’s not a long read, and it moves fairly quickly as Sforza’s life rarely provided dull moments to trudge through. If you enjoy biographies, the Renaissance, or plain old-fashioned girl-power, it’s worth checking out.

All those pertinent details:

  • Title: The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici
  • Author: Elizabeth Lev
  • Length: 349 pages (Kindle, including endnotes)
  • Genre: nonfiction, biography, historical
  • Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Buy it on Amazon here.


Book Review: A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré


Delicate Truth, by John le CarréI attribute my love of espionage to Get Smart, the spy TV show starring Don Adams as a bumbling spy that completely spoofed the genre. Growing up, I loved the weird gadgets and the silliness of the bad guys, but over time I’ve come to enjoy more serious spy stories as much as the light-hearted ones. After reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I was happy to get my hands on the latest novel by John le Carré, A Delicate Truth.

Le Carré doesn’t try to make the world of espionage sound glitzy or glamorous. His characters aren’t cut from the same cloth as James Bond: they’re so normal, albeit with a heightened sixth sense for danger and a perhaps-unhealthy dose of paranoia. The world they operate in is unforgiving, and their missions don’t end with neatly wrapped packages and bows. While the mission is usually the focus of the plot, in A Delicate Truth, most of the story happens three years after a mission in Gibraltar has concluded. One participant, Paul Anderson, is told that it was a textbook case and all was well, but others (both participants and nosy secretaries) aren’t so sure. What exactly happened in Gibraltar? Who can be trusted when your government/employer is telling you one thing, and a washed-up spy tells you something else?

Because we need some background information and because other details come to light much afterwards, the pacing is a tricky bit to get right. Le Carré is marvelous at giving out the right amount of information at the right time, and sprinkling in those other details liberally, but not so much that they become info dumps. Everyone that knows something has a good reason to; there isn’t any extended exposition, nor any requests that the reader suspend common sense in order for information to get shoe-horned in.

The story isn’t a whodunnit, and you don’t feel like you have to solve the mystery before the characters do. Rather, they sort of know who did it, they sort of know someone is lying, but the motivations for such actions remain unclear. It’s a stroll through the world of espionage gone corporate, and a good look at the difficulties spies can face when they’re reporting to both their government and an independent contractor.

I don’t know about the rest of Le Carré’s books, but Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy felt bulky at times. It wasn’t a book you felt you couldn’t put down. A Delicate Truth, however, was a breeze. It was serious, of course, but it wasn’t very long and it constantly gave you a reason to turn the page. If Le Carré is going to continue straying from Cold War-era novels, and Truth is any indication of how that’s going to go, I think I’ll be okay with that.

All those pertinent details:

  • Title: A Delicate Truth
  • Author: John le Carré
  • Length: 320 pages (paperback)
  • Genre: fiction, mystery, espionage
  • Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Note: I received this book from the publisher as a result of winning a Goodreads “First Reads” giveaway, in return for an honest review.

Book Review: Dark Horse, by Kenneth Ackerman


Dark Horse, by Kenneth Ackerman

A week ago my knowledge of James A. Garfield was minimal. I knew he was assassinated, and I knew he was President in the 1800’s (that’s not a big range or anything…), and that was about it. However, I saw Kenneth Ackerman’s Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield as part of the Kindle Daily Deals a month back and decided to download it*. My goal is to read a book about each American President one day, so he seemed like a logical choice to check off the list.

Ackerman does a fine job of providing context for the political atmosphere (and the atmosphere of the nation at large) during Garfield’s sudden rise and fall. I remember learning about patronage in high school, but mostly in regards to Boss Tweed and the New York machine. As I learned, you can’t talk about Garfield without talking about the powerful New York bosses, but Ackerman balances the narrative between the Stalwarts, the Half-Breeds, and Garfield himself. Garfield’s presidency wouldn’t be a story without the influence of those around him, and this book clearly recognizes that.

It’s a surprisingly easy read for political non-fiction. Even at nearly 500 pages, the quick pace of events kept it almost breezy. Of course, since Garfield was assassinated, you know how the story ends before it even begins, and Ackerman makes no attempt to “surprise” the reader with the eventual gunshots. Between sections about his campaign and presidency are chapters about Charles Guiteau, his eventual assassin. Having read Devil in the White City earlier this year, it struck me as very similar: both alternate between the assassin’s gradual descent into madness and the path of his victim.

The book doesn’t end with the bullets, though: Garfield survived for more than two months after he was wounded, so there was much more story to tell. And even then, when the rest of the story could easily have devolved into “and he suffered, and then he suffered some more, and then he died”, it doesn’t. How does Chester A. Arthur react? How should he react? How does public opinion change for a president that it has flip-flopped so much on already? Ackerman addresses each of these in turn, and even though you know that Garfield eventually passes away, it almost seems like for a brief moment, he might be okay.

Some of the most interesting sections were about how the government ran in the 1880’s, and how different (and sometimes similar) it is today. The deadlock in Congress for months seemed all too familiar, and I found myself wondering if we’ve really come all that far, and if perhaps we’ve taken some huge steps backwards in recent years. While today the White House doesn’t allow just anyone to walk through its doors, I can imagine that some of the conversations that go on behind closed doors are very similar to those that took place during Garfield’s very brief presidency.

Dark Horse is a mixture of biography and political thriller, a tug-of-war between Congressional giants and those that finally have the courage to defy them. Even if you aren’t trying to conquer a book about every president like I am, it’s a worthwhile read if you’re interested in the 1800’s and the American political landscape of the day.

All those pertinent details:

  • Title: Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield
  • Author: Kenneth Ackerman
  • Length: 498 pages (Kindle, includes endnotes)
  • Genre: nonfiction, history, political, drama
  • Rating: 4 stars out of 5

*As of publishing this post, the Kindle version is currently $3.99, and you can download it here. Please note that I use Amazon Affiliates and any money generated will be used to maintain Mark It Read.