Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The best read army in the world

It might sound cliché but books can be powerful weapons.  It doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, the ideas they convey can change how people think and even threaten governments.  One example is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a Russian poet, which was banned by the Soviet government for being critical of the 1917 communist revolution.  Last summer I read about it in The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn which tells how the book ended up being published clandestinely by the CIA and smuggled back into the USSR during the height of the Cold War.  (Note: I didn't review it here on my blog because I didn't think it was very good.)  Also, when Hitler and the Nazis came to power, they didn't just overrun their enemies, they burned their books. Millions of them were burned in Berlin and other countries because they were seen as subversive to the Nazi ideals. Hitler even wrote his own book and foisted it upon the population to influence what people thought. In many ways it wasn't just a war for the land and the people, it was a war for their minds as well.

Molly Guptill Manning says that some in America took this as a challenge.  In her new book, When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, she says it was seen as a matter of pride that American service men would be able to read what they chose, and early book drives were held to collect books that could be sent to the military.  Unfortunately, many of those donations were heavy hardbound books that were impractical for soldiers to carry, and more than a few were so old and outdated as to be useless. In an unprecedented move publishers came together under the Council on Books in Wartime and produced the Armed Services Editions (ASEs) – small, lightweight, and portable copies of bestsellers, classics, biographies, histories, compilations of poetry, and discussions of current events. The books, which could fit easily in pockets and packs, turned out to be extremely popular. Over 123 million(!) were printed and distributed over the course of the war.

This was a very interesting and easy read about a mostly forgotten story of WWII. Manning includes some of the 'fan mail' soldiers sent to the authors and publishers, expressing their gratitude for the books and describing how they were traded and passed around along the front lines.  More than one talked about how the books helped to relieve the hours of boredom, but the real impact was that it made so many of those men into life-long learners who came home to re-enter society and universities.  The book is kind of a light and entertaining read but it made me want to read some of those ASE books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Chicken Every Sunday. (This book includes a complete list of the books published as ASEs – even The Great Gatsby was saved from obscurity by the program – as well as a list of many of the authors banned by the Nazis.  I received an advance copy from the Amazon Vine program.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It's a group effort

When I was in high school – waaay back in the early 80s – I was surprised when my friend Sean told me that computers were the wave of the future.  You have to understand that computers were still mostly used for specific purposes in the workplace, and it hadn't even been that long since punch cards had been replaced by magnetic tape.  A "word processor" was a typewriter that could store a few lines of text.  If anyone had a computer at home it was used to play games.  Sure, games were fun, but I didn't understand how computers could be useful

Such thoughts now are laughable.  Less than ten years later that I bought my first computer: a 286 clone with a color monitor that cost $2,000.  I even paid extra to upgrade the hard drive from 20mb to 40mb.  My $500 printer was a dot matrix that could print in color!  With some now-primitive versions of WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, I soon found out just how useful computers could be.  And although the "digital revolution" seemed to have happened overnight, there was a lot of prior work that led to us all depending on computers and internet connections in our homes.

We love the idea of the lone inventor toiling away in obscurity, but it's more often a work of collaboration and shared ideas that create revolutions in society.  Walter Isaacson reaches back to the roots of computers in his newest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  He starts with Charles Babbage's "difference engine," a computing machine from the early 1800s, and the book Ada Lovelace wrote about it (and Ada is a recurring theme in the book).  If not for her detailed documentation it would probably have died in the ash heap of history.  Isaacson discusses the contributions of Alan Turing and many others whose ideas and insights built upon and added to the thinking of others.  Isaacson strives to "give credit" where credit is due, but he clearly and chronologically points out how each one inspired other uses and inventions – and he covers the squabbles for credit that often ensued.

I had a hard time following some of the concepts that underlie the logic of computers, but it's a fascinating history full of names and machines I had barely heard of previously.  Some were geniuses in their own right, but many would never have been known if not for their collaborators – Bill Gates had Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniack.  He even explains the role Al Gore had in "inventing the internet" – yes, he had a role.  There are lots of pictures, including a funny police mug shot of a very young Bill Gates with an unusually huge smile.  Some chapters were absolutely fascinating – as someone who grew up spending the money I earned mowing lawns in video arcades and buying game cartridges for the Atari at home, I loved the chapter that told about Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari.  Other chapters were less interesting, however, and I struggled with the chapter linking hippies with the personal computer (I thought Isaacson seemed to mention LSD, acid, and psychedelic drugs way more than was necessary).  Even blogs and search engines find their way into the history.

I looked forward to reading this book since I had really enjoyed his biography of Benjamin Franklin, and while it was very interesting it didn't quite dazzle me the same way.  It's a bit long – nearly 500 pages before the notes – but still a very good telling of how these things we never knew we needed have become so indispensable in our modern lives.  (I received this book from the GoodReads FirstReads program.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Research: heroes and spectators

Lately I've been reading more about an unsavory part of history that I'm usually content to skip: the Holocaust.  You might recall my recent review of 'my neighbor's' memoir?  Well, I'm chalking it all up as research for a novel that starts in that time, but that's all I want to say about it for now.

Hitler's First Victims: The Quest for Justice by Timothy W. Ryback tells about Josef Hartinger, a German prosecutor whose jurisdiction included the Dachau concentration camp in the years that the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power. When he received notice that four inmates had been shot while trying to escape, it was his responsibility to investigate. While others simply accepted the flimsy stories from the guards about prisoners killed while attacking or trying to escape, he insisted on autopsies and investigations. And when he had enough evidence of wrong-doing, he attempted to prosecute.

Those sent to the camp were mostly political prisoners. They had been involved in communist activities or had connections to opposition groups. Many, however, were only suspected of complaining about the government, and in a few cases personal grudges were being settled (many, but not all, were Jews). They were told they were merely being "detained" while their case was investigated, and that they were being held in "protective custody." But from the beginning, some prisoners were singled out for regular, brutal, and systematic abuse, and those prisoners invariably ended up dead rather quickly. And although Hartinger tried to prosecute a few crimes he found strong proof for, the cases were dropped or derailed by others.
"Just because one is without power does not mean one needs to be without courage and ultimately without character. Shouldn't one try to find some way to make a difference, even in such hopeless circumstances, without necessarily jeopardizing one's life?" -- Josef Hartinger
We look back on it and have a hard time understanding how something like the Holocaust could happen, and yet it did. This is not an especially heroic story. Hartinger's contribution was that some of the evidence he prepared was found after the war and became instrumental in the Nuremberg trials. Nonetheless, he was one of the few to stand up and voice his objections to the injustices – and he was one of the even fewer to survive after putting his life on the line. This book is a detailing of the early deaths at Dachau – not just the original four mentioned above – and describes (repeatedly) the beatings and torture several of the detainees endured. It explains how many of them were killed, and includes explanations later obtained by the perpetrators themselves. It's not for the faint of heart, and yet it is a small insight into the way the mass murder that later became systematized began, and how it was allowed to continue by those who could have spoken out.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Voices from the Other Side: Inspiring German WWII Memoirs by Jean Goodwin Messinger is a little different.  While we regularly see memoirs written by Jewish survivors of WWII, rarely do we see a collection of the stories of ordinary Germans who also lived through those years (two of the stories here are from Jews). Messinger has collected a couple dozen stories and recollections; mostly from those she has met in Colorado. Most were children or came of age during the war. Some grew up in homes that supported Hitler (usually due to the economic prosperity that came after many years of hardship), but most were either ambivalent or against him. Some are told in the person's own words and some are told by the author. The question of what happened to Jewish neighbors was often not something people felt safe wondering too much about, and several talked of being turned in to authorities over trivial statements.

This was actually quite an interesting book to read – and sometimes the most interesting part of the memoir was what was not talked about. Many talk of the hardship of losing homes or family members, and some suffered a lot while some not so much. And while this book doesn't try to offer an answer to how the Holocaust happened, it's interesting to see the recollections of people who lived through such a fascinating and terrible chapter of history. (I received a free copy of the book from the author.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Marx, Maynard, and Dr. Dick

"Economic reading, by popular hearsay, is a veritable desert of dusty prose. In all honesty, much of it is. The student of economics must be prepared for long journeys without a single refreshing sentence; it takes the endurance of a camel and the patience of a saint to finish some of the great texts." Robert L. Heilbroner

Perhaps the coolest teacher I ever had was Dr. Dick at Westminster College.  He didn't look like any teacher I'd known before.  His beard was trimmed but his hair was past his shoulders, and he wore shorts with Birkenstock sandals and a rather loud shirt – untucked, of course.  Honestly, he looked a bit scruffy.  And he had this funny smirk on his face – all the time!  I first thought he must be an aide or something, but then he took roll and started lecturing.  And he made Intro to Macroeconomics one of the most entertaining classes ever!  I still have one of the books from that class over twenty years ago: The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers by Robert L. Heilbroner, and recently decided to read it (I must not have read it in class, or maybe we only had to read a small part because I found my notes in only one chapter).

Heilbroner looks at the great economists from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes (whom Dr. Dick preferred to call "Maynard," with emphasis), and some of the not-so-great ones as well.  And he truly tells you about their "lives, times and ideas" and makes the history come alive.  Not only do you learn about Smith's "Invisible Hand" and supply and demand but also how he'd sometimes go into these trances where he'd end up marching for hours before coming out of it!  And you learn about Maynard's – oops! – Keynes' dalliances with men as well as his insights into economic depressions.  But there's also some of the nuts like Robert Owen, Henry George, and Thorstein Veblen.  And, of course, there's Karl Marx.

The section on Marx is probably my favorite because Heilbroner makes you see the world Marx and his theories came from – as well as how often he was right!  He also points out that Marx "was not the architect of actual socialism" – that was Lenin – and it's so insightful that it makes me want to read Capital and maybe even The Communist Manifesto!  In fact, the whole book was utterly fascinating (and ought to be required reading for all those who blindly sing the praises of capitalism and ignore the failings) and I highly recommend it.  My copy is from 1986 and it would be interesting to see what he'd thought of the collapse of communism just a few years later (maybe there's an update in a later edition?).  Heilbroner doesn't just explain economic ideas or even merely put them into context, he does it in a way that entertains – no need for "the endurance of a camel and the patience of a saint" with this book.  Many times he even made me laugh!  It was almost as if I were back in Dr. Dick's classroom, and I even thought I could hear him laughing along with me.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Winter and gardens

It's the middle of winter, so naturally my mind turns to... the garden!  Of course, here in SoCal we can pretty much garden year-round and I've got pots sprouting with peas, carrots, lettuce, beets, and turnips.  At this time of year I find myself irresistibly drawn to seed catalogs and gardening books, where I pore over the pictures and descriptions and dream of what I'd like my garden to be.

One beautiful gardening book I've been enjoying lately is The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr.  This is a hefty book at nearly 400 pages that is comparable to Sunset's Western Garden Book for content but loaded with beautiful pictures and focused just on herbs.  I've never grown many herbs myself, but I've got a monster rosemary and a struggling thyme, and I plan to add catmint and valerian to the garden this year.  (The catmint is just because I like mint and the valerian is because it's one of those plants I remember from my dad's garden that we called 'garden heliotrope' and always smelled so wonderful – he says it's died out now.)  But the thing that strikes you in going through the encyclopedia-like entries is the huge variety in herbal plants and the many uses.  Sure, plenty of them smell great – like lavender or that rosemary – but there are so many ways they can be used in cooking.  Orr gives ideas on what goes best with what kinds of dishes and even includes a few recipes here and there.  I've been putting off reviewing this book because I wanted to try the caraway-orange biscuits – unfortunately I just haven't had the time lately and didn't want to put it off any longer.  Many herbs also have medicinal properties from simple relaxing teas (I'm thinking of that catmint) to the folkloric insomnia cures (maybe that valerian will come in handy sometime...?), although he offers reasoned cautions (such as warnings about other uses for aloe than just sunburns).  But mostly I find so many of them beautiful to grow in the garden – and another I'd like to add this year is bee balm: both pretty and useful.

I compared it to another book on my shelf, Herb Gardening For Dummies®.  Overall, the information is comparable.  Both talk about the history of the various herbs along with the uses and tips on growing.  Orr even sometimes shows a sense of humor that is often prevalent in the 'Dummies' books.  But Orr's book is ten times more pleasing to look at, and let's face it: with gardening books, sometimes you want as much inspiration as you do information, and you can get both with this one.  (I received this book from BloggingForBooks.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Keeping secrets

I'm still trying to get caught up on books I've recently read, so how about a couple of YA/kids books?  One is quite serious, and the other... well, not so much.

In The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart, Twelve year-old Mark has cancer and it keeps coming back. Tired of pills, doctors, hospitals, and the grief his illness causes his parents, he runs away planning to climb Mount Rainier, taking only a few essentials and his little dog Beau – who turns out to be far more heroic than his small size might indicate. (In fact, Beau might be my favorite character in the story.) He leaves a note for his best friend, Jessie, asking her to "keep his secret." But he doesn't set out in ignorance of what could happen – he seems to intend that his life will end on the mountain.

This is a very heartfelt story, told mostly first-person from Mark's perspective with short 'half' chapters in third-person about Jessie's reaction and the dilemma she faces. This unconventional style gives the reader Mark's perspective while also showing the pain his disappearance causes his parents and best friend and her difficult predicament. Through Jesse we also get several brief 'flashbacks' of experiences the two of them had together. Mostly, however, the story rides on the sad and unfortunate plight of a sick boy and the reader can't help hoping he makes it to the mountain even while hoping someone will figure out what's going on and stop him. And while death is a recurrent preoccupation for Mark, I didn't find the ending quite so definite and hopeless. It's a compelling read that I had a hard time putting down and deals with cancer in an interesting way.

But if you're not in the mood for a heavy read, how about Loot by Jude Watson?  When March McQuinn's father Alfie, a notorious jewel thief, falls from a roof in Amsterdam, he leaves his almost thirteen-year old son with a valuable moonstone and some instructions: "find jewels." Except what he really said was "Find Jules," March's twin sister he didn't know about and hasn't seen since the two of them were babies. But it turns out there were a lot of secrets March didn't know about, and Loot will no doubt please a lot of readers. It's got two long-lost twins who are now orphans, and team up with two kids they meet in a Social Services group home, and embark on a high-stakes quest to retrieve the seven moonstones stolen by their father years earlier. They pull off improbable heists in New York City and San Francisco, always staying a step ahead of the cops through their street smarts. But other, more dangerous thieves are also after the moonstones, and time is running out in order to break a prophecy.

If you were to make a list of plot elements expected to be in such a book, this one would probably have all of them. It's fairly fun and fast-paced but also quite formulaic (kind of Dan Brown for MG readers). But while I thought the story was okay, I was bothered by the questionable morality. Stealing is portrayed as fun and honorable despite the dangers, and the victims as deserving:
"He thought of his father, who had a strange sense of honor about his targets. He had moved through the world of the wealthy but never been part of it. He stole from those who had been rich so long, they had forgotten ordinary cares. He stole from those who lived in houses... plump with silk cushions and bursting with too much of everything. He stole from those who wrecked the lives of others and dusted off their hands and said, 'It's business.' March had seen it again and again, in fancy restaurants and hotels, so often, he could smell it: the ease of privilege inherited and unearned" (from page 182 of the advance copy).
But maybe being a dad reading this stuff makes you think about such sticky questions, and maybe kids won't think so much about it.  If so, I guess it was kind of a fun read.  (I received advance copies of both books from Amazon Vine.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The dark side of cute

Sigh... time.  I don't seem to have much of it lately.  I just noticed that I've only posted once here since last October, and yet I've read quite a few books – some of them really good, too.  But I'm going to get caught up and I'll start with one of those recent books – The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonnette.

Market bubbles are nothing new.  A few people make a ton of money and everyone else loses.  Karl Marx identified the boom and bust cycle as one of the great weaknesses of capitalism (and although he got a lot of things right, his end predictions were wrong – more on this in a another post).  At the time of the Internet Bubble in the 1990s there was another bubble, a rather embarrassing bubble in hindsight: the Beanie Baby Bubble.  People lost all reason speculating on small stuffed animals, thinking they would become rich.  Ty Inc., the toy company of Ty Warner, became familiar to all of America as normally rational adults lost all sense trying to collect their line of under-stuffed toys with PVC beads in them.  (And even though we're talking about toys, this story has little to do with children.)

The story of Beanie Babies has to be one of the finest examples of fact being stranger than fiction, and this is the most bizarre story I can remember reading.  Warner had a knack for creating toys – he was obsessive about things like quality and materials and display.  He frequently sought opinions from those around him on fabric color, eyes, or names.  He preferred to sell his creations through small 'mom and pop' gift stores instead of big-box retailers, and many of his employees liked him.  In fact, he did many things right and ended up a billionaire!  But there was just as much luck involved in his rise to riches, especially since he was also an obsessive micro-manager who felt threatened by not being able to control the markets his toys created.  He once screamed at his sales staff, "I didn't start my own business to make other people rich!", and boasted he could put his trademark Ty heart on manure and sell it.  He alienated pretty much everyone in his life and is known more for his selfishness and stinginess than anything. 

This is a darkly absorbing read.  I laughed out loud, I scoffed in disbelief, and I shook my head too many times to count – but I really had a hard time putting this short book down.  I remember hearing about the craze, which began in Chicago with 'soccer-moms,' but even at the time it just sounded too ridiculous.  And yet... if I remember correctly, this was around the time a PBS show called "Antiques Roadshow" began and vintage toys were often seen selling for high prices.  And who hasn't heard about their old collections of baseball cards or comic books surprisingly being worth something?  (The baseball cards I collected as a kid have long since been lost, but I still have my comic books – although they're not likely to be worth much since I read them so many times!)  The only Beanie Babies we ever owned (that I know of) were the "teeny" ones my kids got with McDonald's Happy Meals near the time the bubble burst – and those didn't stay in their plastic bags, unlike the ones most collectors stored in Lucite bins with custom tag protectors.  The book covers as much history of Ty Warner and Beanie Babies as the author could dig up, as well as a number of brief but interesting tidbits about other toy fads (I only wish it had more information the seventeenth-century "Tulip Mania" that is mentioned on the back).  But this is a very interesting and easy read about a most embarrassing market bubble – although if you still have a Beanie Baby collection in the basement, it might make you feel more embarrassed than amused!  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Religion and war

There is an idea that has become so widely accepted that nearly everyone hears it without questioning: that religion is responsible for most (if not all) of the war and violence that has happened in the world.  And when you see news of "Islamic terrorists" waging jihad (holy war) against the West, it seems to make sense.  The Holocaust targeted Jews, so WWII must have been about religion, right?  Well, not really, and fortunately not everyone accepts this idea at face value.

In Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong says that our modern-day understanding of "religion" actually came about around the time of the Protestant Reformation.  People prior to that wouldn't have understood our distinction between a secular government and a religious one.  She looks back to the ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians and others that sprang up in India, China, and the Middle East and examines the beginnings of the major belief systems (Hindu, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).  She analyzes what is known about the beliefs as they developed and says that religion didn't usually play the same role in people’s lives as we think of today.  Furthermore, she says, religion was never the driving force behind wars of conquest: it was all about land and wealth and is a result of agrarian society and the rise of an “upper” or governing class.  The fact that religion may have been involved in such aggression was peripheral to the goals, and more often than not religion was a tempering force against such violence.

Armstrong makes a compelling case, even when she discusses the Middle Ages when the Holy Roman Empire held sway over Europe and the Crusaders went to Jerusalem to take back the Holy Land.  Even the so-called Religious Wars weren't drawn along the lines of religion, and adherents of different beliefs fought on the same sides.  And when it comes to more modern times she explains how religion became the more personal belief we have today and how nationalism became the driving force for violence with the rise of nation states. 

Not only is this book very well-researched, it is also very methodical and almost painstaking in its delivery and does so in a very scholarly and academic manner.  I felt I was in over my head until it got to more modern times and although I sometimes felt like abandoning the book early on, I'm glad I kept at it.  In fact, there's so much information here I feel like this is a book I'd like to re-read again in a few years.  I didn’t always find it thoroughly convincing, although that might be due to my unfamiliarity with much of the history, but sometimes it felt like Armstrong was squirming a bit to explain some more modern troubles.  But it's a solid and thought-provoking counter-argument to books that claim any gains in peace are due solely to "Enlightenment philosophies" (which she ties to the rise of nation-states and nationalism) and I’m sure I'm doing a poor job of explaining her arguments.  But personally, my greatest qualm with the book – as a religious person – is that it’s written with such an agnostic viewpoint that it felt like it was defending the benefits of religious belief systems while denying the Godly power behind them, but I understand the need for a scholarly viewpoint.  (I received this book from the BloggingforBooks program in exchange for an unbiased review.)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Taking a break

I may have mentioned before that sometimes my brain gets a little overwhelmed with the histories I read and I need to give it a break.  I don't mean a break from reading, of course - it's not like I'm going to start watching television, after all! - but a break from heavy and serious stuff.  That's when I usually binge on some YA and kids books.  Here's a few of them:

Boys of Blur by N. D. Wilson was a pleasant surprise.  It's about 12 year-old Charlie Reynolds who left Taper, Florida and an abusive father behind many years before.  Now, he and his mom are back when his step-dad, Mack, is offered the job of head football coach at the high school. Taper is sugar cane country, and when they burn the sugar cane in the fall (to remove the dry leaves), kids chase the rabbits and try to outrun the flames. Charlie has seen some scary things in his life, but nothing prepares him for the frights he faces here - and we're not talking gators and snakes. I don't want to give too much away but this was a fun little book for middle-school aged kids, and I think boys, in particular, might enjoy this fast-paced and sometimes scary story with interesting characters.  Supposedly there are elements of Beowulf in the story.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer is a pretty amazing story about loss and dealing with grief.  Twelve year-old Grace's life has been one of constantly moving. But when her mom dies in an accident, she ends up at her grandma's house - a grandma she's never met, and a grandma who put Grace's mom on a bus when she was 17 and pregnant. She struggles with the adjustment and schemes to get herself sent back to live with Mrs. Greene and her best friend Lacey. But then Grace starts finding little clues that she believes are being sent by her mother, leading her to something. The writing is beautiful and the story twists and turns as though answers aren't always easy, and Grace has to keep struggling to find them. Robert Frost's poetry is threaded through the story, and although it deals with a sober topic, I never felt that it lost sight of Grace's grief - or her grandmothers - and dealt with it in an appropriate way. 

Finally, Torn from Troy: Odyssey of a Slave: Book 1 by Patrick Bowman was another that surprised me - mostly because it's basically the story of The Odyssey by Homer, which was one of those books I read the Cliffs Notes for instead when it was assigned back in high school.  But this is retold as the story of Alexi, a fifteen year-old Trojan boy who is enslaved by Odysseus, who is called Lopex in this story.  Alexi ends up helping the Greeks through the storms they face at sea and getting out of some of the troubles they get into, like the Cicones they try to steal from, the bewitching lotus-eaters... and even bigger problems.  And as he learns a grudging respect for his captors, he also earns respect from them.  I liked this one so well that I'm going to track down the rest in the series, and I might even go back and read The Odyssey and The Iliad.  (Miss Haltiner would be proud!)

(I received Boys of Blur and The Secret Hum of a Daisy from Amazon Vine.  Torn from Troy was a 2014 audiobook download from SYNC.)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Who you calling a "jerk?"

Norman Rockwell said that he painted life as he'd "like it to be," and I like that sentiment.  His illustrations mostly "[exclude] the sordid and ugly" and show the "ideal aspects" of an "ideal world."*  The world he paints is one mostly of honest and upstanding citizens and innocent kids enjoying ball games and soda fountains.  I'm old enough that I remember seeing soda counters (although I don't know if they actually mixed "sodas" anymore at that time) and they seem like a relic of a simpler age.  There was one in the old Earl's Pharmacy where we used to buy candy and comic books.  There was another at the old Snelgrove Ice Cream parlor on South Temple in downtown Salt Lake, although I only ever ordered ice cream.  I think both places are gone now, and the world seems a little poorer for it.

So maybe it was with that nostalgia in mind that I got The Soda Fountain: Floats, Sundaes, Egg Creams & More--Stories and Flavors of an American Original by Gia Giasullo and Peter Freeman of the Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain (I received a free copy from Blogging for Books for review purposes).  Interestingly enough, it starts out with about 50 pages of history on soda fountains, which enjoyed a heyday during Prohibition (so much for the Norman Rockwell image).  They explain the origins of the term "soda jerk" (the guy behind the counter mixing your soda), give a few historical accounts of the dangers of working with carbonated water, and even offer a little history on the Brooklyn Farmacy itself.  (This is my second cookbook from an establishment in New York, so maybe publishing your recipes is the new thing for trendy eateries?)  The recipes start out with the syrups, and some (like the cola syrup) are complex and involved.  Several of them call for such exotic ingredients as "orange flower water" and "dried hibiscus flowers," but those are almost always listed as "optional."  I went for the simpler recipes, and several are actually very easy - and tasty! - and finding plain carbonated water at the grocery store turned out to be much easier than I thought it might be.
Although you can mix a simple soda with the syrup, subsequent sections use them in floats and egg creams (something I'd never heard of).  And the book is extremely well organized, with each recipe giving the page numbers for the syrup and the syrup recipe references where else it's used.  (There are also a number of options for mixing the syrups for someone who's "not in a temperance mood.")  They explain the proper techniques for making egg cremes and advocate artfully hanging the ice cream on the edge of the "float glass" for your floats.  Several of the syrups also produce a "compote" which can be used as toppings for ice cream and other treats.  In fact, the book seems to have recipes for everything you can order at the Brooklyn Farmacy, even the ice cream sundaes and splits plus the toppings to go with them, as well as the milkshakes, cookies, and other baked goodies that look delicious (maybe sometime I'll get a chance to visit and find out).

And while I find the recipes very good and a lot of fun to make, the real popularity of the book in my house hit me when the kids were having a bunch of friends over and Jamie went ahead and bought everything and asked me to make raspberry sodas for them.  She didn't realize that it took almost an hour to make plus time to cool, so only the kids who stayed late got some, but that only meant I was mixing raspberry sodas for her for several days afterwards!  I think I'd better plan ahead for when she wants a pineapple soda - that one takes 24 hours to make - and I'm looking forward to it already!

*The full Norman Rockwell quotes are: "The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be", and "I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it - pictures in which there are no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers... only foxy grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys who fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard."