Review: “The Girls of 17 Swann Street” by Yara Zgheib

When I lived in Baltimore, I took Russian in college for two years. Unlike many of my fellow learners, I thoroughly enjoyed it. One benefit was working with a language tutor. Mine was a young woman named Helen. We got friendly and occasionally hung out together. Once, we went shopping at the mall. It was then I first began to suspect that there might be a problem. Helen was willowy, slender, with big, brown eyes and gorgeous dark hair. She could have grabbed anything off the rack and worn it without having to think about it. And yet, here she was, spending two hours trying on skirts in various shops, never quite satisfied with how she looked. Not with how the skirt looked on her, but how she looked in the skirt. In the end, she put a couple of things on hold, but told me later she never went back to pick them up.

Another time, she very excitedly confided in me that she hadn’t had any food at all that day but had been running on cappuccinos alone. The caffeine kept her going, and in her mind, the froth and milk provided all calories she needed for whatever she was doing. Uncomfortably munching on my Chinese food, I wondered how she managed to dance and work out like she claimed she did on basically nothing but water and air.

When Anna collapses in the bathroom of the apartment she shares with her husband, Matthias finally realizes that he needs to be the one to seek help. This help is to be found at 17 Swann Street, a live-in facility for women with eating disorders. Told from Anna’s point of view, the novel takes the reader by the hand and leads you up close to the faces of these women suffering from anorexia or bulimia, who at some level know that things are not well and yet cannot bring themselves to admit that they are not in control of their lives at all.

If you have never lived with or next to a person with an eating disorder, this behavior may seem strange and hard to understand. Why would someone not be able to see what damage they’re doing to their body, to their relationships? Meeting Anna, Emm, Valerie, and the other residents of 17 Swann Street will give the reader reasons, situations, and circumstances, reveal the struggles, triumphs and failures, the denial, shame, and secret hopes of those who have lost their own voices to their disease. The book is written in a straight-forward manner: as Anna fights to save herself and her marriage, the reader is drawn along; pity is neither necessary nor wanted, empathy is. This novel is a sensitive guide to Anna’s journey. I found it spellbinding and recommend it highly!

Yara Zgheib is not new to writing; in fact, she is rather prolific and quite eloquent. Despite this, nobody seems to have bothered to interview her yet. You can read her own blurb on her book here and find more of her writing at Womanscape.

“The Girls at 17 Swann Street” is published by St. Martin’s Press. I received an ARC in exchange for a review. All views, unless otherwise stated, are my own.

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Review: “Happily Healthy” by Lea Lou (Lea Lüdemann)

I still don’t have a start date for the new job, so while I wait, I have time to… clean the house… sleep in… run 5 miles a day… read… yeah, ok, let’s go with read! And this is why you get three days of reviews in a row. Cool!

I had waffled about this particular book for a few weeks. Checked Amazon.com and .de. Waffled some more. Then decided to download the English language Kindle version (German Amazon has so much more selection!). Got mad while previewing: there were far too many errors in the text to make it worth keeping, so I returned it. Waffled some more. Then the price for the German Kindle version dropped six euros, and we were in business. I am happy to report that there are no repeats of the errors of the English version. Text is where it’s supposed to be. The arrangement of photos and text makes sense. There are no odd italics where none should be. This one’s a keeper.

What had appealed to me in this particular book was Lea’s attitude. Having overcome an eating disorder, she now enjoys food, does not believe in punishing yourself through your diet (rather, she subscribes to the oft-quoted notion of 80/20, namely, that if you eat clean -read: fresh and unprocessed- foods 80% of the time, you get to treat yourself the other 20%), has a good attitude towards exercise, and incorporates mental wellness into the package. Her writing style is easy going, never preachy. She encourages her readers to listen to their bodies’ needs and act accordingly. Nowadays, a lot of people seem to have unlearned that essential skill.

Lea begins with a chapter about food: her pantry staples, where to shop for which ingredients, eating seasonally, how you can eat healthy on a budget. The next chapter is about fitness and includes a HIIT (high intensity interval training) session as an example of how to get started. From there, we move on to mindfulness and yoga, complete with a vinyasa sequence that even beginners without major mobility issues should be able to follow. There are tips on breathing techniques that can be quite helpful for stress reduction. The chapter on Happiness gives tips and tricks on cultivating a positive mindset, not as a cure-all but rather another pillar to build a happy, fulfilled life on. Each chapter up to this point includes a quickie checklist of things you can do right now to support your goals.

Finally, we delve into the recipe section. Lea is a pescatarian, but all recipes are vegetarian. Although she promises in the introduction to food to add ways to veganize the recipes, the only two times this happens are rather silly. I don’t need to be told to simply omit the egg or leave out the cheese! Luckily, if you have a little experience with vegan cooking, you’ll quickly find that all the recipes can modified without difficulty. Use chia or flax eggs in baking, substitute non-dairy milk and butter, or add commercial vegan cheeze or flavored tofu in other recipes. We just had the shakshuka for lunch, the husband got his with two eggs, I had mine with tofu simmered in the sauce. THAT is modification.

Alas, I also found a mistake in this particular recipe: it calls for a red (bell) pepper cut in thin strips, but the pepper never makes an appearance again beyond the ingredient list! Add it with the onion and garlic, and be sure to read all recipes completely before getting stumped in the middle later! Oh, and how was it? Very fast, very easy, very tasty. I’ve also had a breakfast smoothie from the book, which I enjoyed, and I’m looking forward to incorporating more recipes in the meal plan in future. There are no “weird” or hard to get ingredients in these dishes; your local supermarket should be able to supply all of them.

There are plenty of photos in this book, but not every recipe has one, so bear that in mind if this is important to you. The photos for the HIIT and yoga sections are very good and helpful.

The English version is called “Happily Healthy by Lea Lou: A Guide to Food, Fitness, Health & Happiness.” It is self-published by Lea Lüdemann. In German, the book is called “Happily Healthy: Mit Rezepten, Fitness und Yoga zum gesunden und glücklichen Leben.” It is published by ZS Verlag GmbH. Lea speaks English and German and did her own translation. She grew up in Germany and now lives in London. To learn more, also visit her blog.

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Review: “Eat Feel Fresh” by Sahara Rose Ketabi

I love food. I enjoy gorgeous photography. I practice yoga. And I feel that every day can be a good day when you learn a new thing or two. So, I was quite happy to snatch up a copy of “Eat Feel Fresh” for review. First of all, it is simply the most beautifully illustrated book I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. The colors explode off the pages and bring a smile to your face, which can only be a good thing. Secondly, it is chock-full of new spins on recipes but as always, let’s stick to the advice of the Red Queen and start at the beginning.

One thing you will likely notice right away is that Deepak Chopra is literally plastered all over this book, cover to cover and anywhere in between, having written the foreword and being quoted once or twice, as well. If you’re not a fan of Dr. Chopra’s, you won’t enjoy the close relationship he and Ms. Ketabi clearly have. Another point that didn’t take long to irritate me was the reference to an ‘alkaline diet.’ There is no evidence whatever that you can change the pH value of your body chemistry through diet, nor should you. Various parts of your body have different pH values, so what would you even be aiming at? Also, the term ‘detox’ is used, and saying something that silly even once costs you points in a review. Detoxing is done by your organs all the time, every minute of every day, and it is simply incorrect to claim that you need to change your diet to accomplish this. More correctly, you can assist your organs in their admittedly life-supporting function by avoiding to indiscriminately stuff yourself with items of questionable nutritional value. If we can agree on this, then let’s move on to the good stuff, and there is certainly plenty.

I had never heard of Ms. Ketabi before, but apparently, she is an expert in the field of ayurveda, the ancient Indian ‘science of life,’ a system of medicine that encompasses far more than simply treating symptoms of illness. “Eat Feel Fresh” gives you a semi-thorough introduction into ayurveda and the three doshas, or elements, that form a person’s body type and personality, frequently in a unique combination. The way you eat can help balance the doshas, leading to increased wellness. I find Ms. Ketabi’s writing personality quite accessible.  “Eat Feel Fresh” aims to bring a new, modern approach to ayurvedic principles so that they can be more easily integrated into the Western lifestyle. There is a spiritual component to this approach, as ayurveda is a holistic system. Some may find this esoteric, others refreshing and insightful.

Once you have determined your dosha, head right into the recipe part of the book which offers tridoshic meals, meaning there is a base recipe with variations, according to what you have learned in part one. All recipes are gluten-free and plant-based, and the number of recipes containing what some might consider exotic ingredients is very, very small. We love experimenting with food and frequently cook Indian dishes, so our kitchen is well stocked in that regard. If you are only starting to branch out into international cooking, the initial investment could possibly seem daunting, but you will use most spices and staples over and over.

There is good basic information about stocking your pantry, meal planning and prepping, what to do with leftovers, and how to prepare basic staples, like grains and legumes. The recipe section ecompasses everything, from breakfasts, bowls, dinners, snacks and sides, to desserts and potions (which actually means teas, mylks, and juices). You won’t be eating endless varieties of curry, either: there are colorful soups, burgers, pizza, shepherd’s pie, tacos, grain-free chapatis and naan, creative variations on hummus, delicious Indian sweets like kheer, and intriguing twists on American favorites, like Raw Rose and Pistachio Cheesecake, Chickpea Chocolate Crunch Bark, and several versions of brownies.

As is common these days, there is no nutritional information given for any of the dishes. Would I get a copy for myself? Likely. I am intrigued by the idea of maximizing my personal health and wellness, based on ayurvedic ideas, and most certainly fascinated by a lot of the recipes (I’ve bookmarked a couple to try but have not had the chance yet). I did find some of the information on balancing your doshas a bit confusing, though, and on days when I’m more skeptical than spiritual, the ‘esoteric babble’ would likely bug me to a point.

“Eat Feel Fresh” will be published by DK, a publisher with a huge catalog of informational and educational titles. I received a free copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. It should be fairly obvious that all opinions are my own.

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Review: “The Poisoned City” by Anna Clark

One of my pet peeves is lazy journalism, the kind that “quotes” studies without naming them, the type that simply copies someone else’s article without fact checking, the brand that presents conclusions as facts without providing the manner in which it arrived there. Luckily, Anna Clark is not a lazy journalist. The preparation for her non-fiction book “The Poisoned City” about the Flint water crisis obviously involved a lot of painstaking research supported by extensive footnotes, and her own conclusions, presented in the epilogue, are nothing if not comprehensible. Ms Clark presents a lot of facts and figures but managed to do it in an engaging manner and without resorting to playing on heartstrings too frequently (although I personally would have left out the quote by the lady whose dogs died from lead poisoning, only because someone who is smart enough to not let her family use suspicious water but thinks nothing of letting her dogs drink it is not really a sympathetic character).

“The Poisoned City” is a book about politics, chemistry, medicine, about financial (mis-)management, environmental protection, and why it is important for a community to band together when the cause requires it, because we are indeed stronger together than when we stand alone. The story of the Flint water crisis is important because its underlying problems affect all of us living in the United States today, and simply sticking your head in the sand and hoping for favorable winds isn’t going to help. It teaches lessons that we should at least be aware of, because in the end, we are all equally responsible for ensuring that our vision of democracy is put into practice in an inclusionary manner.

I very highly recommend this book to anyone, whether you’re interested in the topics mentioned above, enjoy a good fact-based thriller, or are simply a fan of great writing.

“The Poisoned City” is published by Henry Holt & Company. I received a free copy in exchange for a review via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

poisoned city

Review: “Plant-Powered Beauty” by Amy Galper and Christina Daigneault

You’d almost think I was on a DIY trip, the way I’m reviewing two beauty guides in a row! This is actually rather serendipitous; I’d requested both, just in case I didn’t get approved for one, and ended up with both. As it turns out, they complement each other rather well. So let’s not dilly-dally any further and get on with the post!

“Plant-Powered Beauty” is an amazing, in-depth resource for anyone wishing to learn the behind-the-scenes science of creating not only your own beauty products, but your very own recipes. Ms Galper and Ms Daigneault, certified aromatherapists, spend the better half of the three hundred-odd pages of this book giving you all the tools you will ever need to do exactly that. As you would expect, you begin by examining the skin. What is it, what does it do, and how does it do it? You’ll learn all about components of skin care, how to combine them in which format to arrive at a desired result, and you will find out how to prepare and store your recipes to get the most out of them. When I said ‘the better part,’ I was not kidding. Part 1 of the book ends roughly in the middle of it, but all throughout this first, as well as the remaining, half you’ll see info boxes and whole pages with additional information inserted. You are in good hands here! One little quibble I have is with the section “Nice to have equipment”: in a setting where hygiene is of the utmost important, bottle brushes are not a pleasant afterthought but essential. They are dirt cheap, too, so there is no reason at all not to add them to your at-home beauty laboratory.

Part 2 begins on page 153. This is where you can begin making products with some 50 recipes, from face cream and body butter to hair treatments (including pomade, although fans of a certain film are left in the dark how this compares to Dapper Dan), deodorant, mouthwash, bug spray, pain relief gel, and massage oil. There is quite a variety! I particularly love the final recipe section, Mind-Body Care, which includes aromatherapy bath tea bags, various salves, roll-ons, and even inhalers for those moments when you’re desperate for some serenity. Please note that some recipes call for honey or beeswax, although there is a discussion on how to substitute different plant-derived waxes, at least. One thing I found a bit odd was the fact that the introductory notes to the recipes come after the list of equipment and ingredients needed. I prefer the actual recipe body to be as uncluttered as possible, but I realize not everyone cares.

Finally, there is a fairly extensive resources list, lots of notes referred to in the text, a glossary, an index, and a separate recipe index (super helpful!). If you want to develop your own body care recipes, this is definitely the guide for you. Do realize, though, that because you’ll possibly be making your own herbal infusions and other vital parts of your recipes,  you will need to plan ahead, possibly even months ahead. If you’re just looking for some quick ideas you can whip up for an impromptu spa day, you would be better off with the book from my previous review.

“Plant-Powered Beauty” is published by BenBella Books. I received a free copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “Pure Skin Care” by Stephanie L. Tourles

Whaaat, another review already? What is going on here? Yes, I do seem rather prolific this week, but I’m eager to get through some of the excellent non-fiction titles so that I can give you a few awesome fiction titles to meet!

My interest in natural skin care first arose in my teen years. Like so many of my peers, I was plagued with acne and sought both to alleviate the ugly, red pimples and reduce the appearance of my pores. Because I had better things to spend my allowance on than expensive creams and tinctures (hello! Books and music, of course!), and because I’ve always enjoyed stirring things together, I experimented with making my own products. Over the years, I’ve bought, read, and discarded a number of instruction manuals on the subject, but this is one I would actually get for myself.

“Pure Skin Care” is divided into two major parts. In part one, you learn what skin is made of and what it does for you, how to determine your skin type, and how best to pamper it. From the get-go, you’ll find the chapters augmented by info boxes to deepen your understanding on the given subject. You’ll also find out how to choose your tools and containers to store your products safely, and there is an introduction to basic techniques to make the magic happen.

As you might have guessed, part two is all about recipes. The remaining four chapters provide a plethora of easy-to-make products that will have you glowing from face to feet. Notice that haircare is not covered in this book; after all, hair is not skin. Every recipe notes which skin type the product is recommended for and comes with easy instructions on making, storing, and using it. The vast majority is vegan-friendly, although some recipes include honey, yoghurt, or buttermilk. I love that a good number already reside in my fridge and pantry: the best for your skin without having to empty your wallet or spend loads of time searching for exotic items. Friends of short ingredient lists will love this book: some recipes require only one or two items, and most can be made with a small handful.

If you’re unsure where to source your oils, etc., you will find a handy resource guide after the glossary (look here to learn the difference between base oils and essential oils, what to look for when buying essential oils, and everything you need to know about using herbs) and the ingredient dictionary. At the very end is also a recommended reading list, if you would like to delve deeper.

The book has a layout that is easy on the eye and is illustrated with luscious photos that will get you in the mood for a spa day right away.

“Pure Skin Care” is published by Storey Publishing. I received a free copy via Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own. Publishing date is September 18, 2018.

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Review: “Go Dairy Free” by Alisa Fleming

There are many reasons to forgo dairy products: you may suffer from an intolerance or a full-blown allergy, you may have other health concerns or ethical reservations, or you’re simply not interested (some of us aren’t). Alisa Fleming was born with a severe milk allergy which she never outgrew. Ten years ago, when the first edition of “Go Dairy Free” was released, there were far fewer non-dairy food options than there are today, and of course research has advanced, as well, so now seemed like a good time for an updated version.

Sure enough, whether you actually want or have to skip out on dairy, or whether you’re merely curious, this book is filled to the margins with interesting information. In part one, you’ll learn the difference between an intolerance and an allergy, what the latest medical findings are, what dairy really is and which bits the body needs for what, how you may substitute these important bits, and much more. In part two, you will find more than 250 recipes to accommodate the dairy-free lifestyle, from simple staples like non-dairy mylks and butter replacements to breakfast favorites like muffins, breads, and even French toast sticks, soups, entrees, and desserts, and again: MUCH more. All recipes are vegan-friendly, as well, listing modifications where required to replace eggs (which are not in fact dairy products, no matter how cuddly they get with milk at the grocery store).

I found the information presented interesting and written in a very accessible format. The recipes span a huge variety. For people wanting even more, Ms Fleming also operates a webzine called Go Dairy Free, in which you could easily get lost for days.

There are two caveats I noticed: one, Ms Fleming mentions borage oil in the section of butter replacements. In recent years, experts have warned people away from the frequent use of borage (the plant) because it contains parts that act as carcinogens. I do not know if this also applies to the oil, but do exercise caution, if you can even find borage oil for a price that will not send you to the poor house. Secondly, red palm oil is gaining in popularity, but I for one am not buying into the claims made by virtually every company on the planet these days that their palm oil is sourced sustainably. The two biggest palm oil producing countries still destroy swaths of precious wildlife habitat every single day to accommodate the market. The trees from which red palm oil is made naturally grow in Africa, so if you can find oil sourced from there vs. Latin America or Southeast Asia, you’re better off using that. And then, of course, the debate is ongoing whether the saturated fats in palm oil are any better than those found in animal-derived products. You can do your own research on that.

“Go Dairy Free” is published by BenBella Books. I received a free copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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