Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I'm not much of a cook, except for a short list of special dishes I've had enough practice with to do right. Most of my time reading cooking books has been goggling at the more obscure recipes in The Joy of Cooking (walnut ketchup?!) That's my favorite cookbook, though, because it doesn't assume you already know things. You can find an explanation of how to do or how to make whatever in that book, it seems. But it isn't so much a reading-straight-through book.

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke (with recipes by his wife Marlene Parrish) can work either as a reading-straight-through or a look-up-one-thing book. It's definitely a cookbook second, through, and an everyday science book first. You can learn about how the sense of taste works, the different types of "raw" sugar, the FDA labels for different types of cocoa powder, the difference between the cooking definition of salt and the chemical use of that work, or what the difference is between fats and fatty acids. And that's just in the first three chapters. If you want to know how your water filter works, what MSG really is and why some people avoid foods containing it, what grits are (and even the U.S. Southerners who eat them don't necessarily know how they're made), the five processes used to cure hams, and some rather gross stuff (in my humble opinion) about raw shellfish, this book has it all in one neat package. Perhaps I'll remember to add an additional comment to this entry once I've actually tried the recipe for Mocha Soy Pudding.

(And checking Amazon.com while posting this entry, I find that there's a second volume now. I feel confident that I can recommend that one too, despite not having known it existed until a few minutes ago.)

Monday, November 21, 2005

So for a 12-day trip to my grandfather's computerless home, I brought 12 books to keep me occupied. I only finished 9 and 1/2, as it turned out, but there are two of those that particularly interested me.

The first was Valerie Paradiz's Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. If people even think about how Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected the stories in the Grimm's Fairy Tale books, they imagine them visiting rural areas and listening to elderly people recount the same tales they told their children and grandchildren. The reality is very different -- the Grimms' best sources were their sister's middle-class friends and other people recommended by their own friends, all nice German city-dwellers who could afford to have the women of the house stay home keeping house and doing needlework. Paradiz goes through the brothers' collecting methods, and also examines how the stories reflected the hopes, dreams, and emotions of the women who told them -- how tales of princesses whose only hope was the perfect suitor really meant something to early 19th-century European women. This is an interesting change from most analyses of fairy tales, which either look at them in comparison to modern life, or as a reflection of unchanging components of the human psyche.

So the book is literary, cultural, women's, and traditional history, all in a biography of some brothers and their work. This is just the kind of behind-the-scenes look at something familiar that interests me most, and I hope others as well.

The other behind-the-scenes look that I particularly enjoyed was Doris Weatherford's A History of the American Suffrage Movement. It has a foreword by Geraldine Ferraro, whose Vice-Presidential candidacy in 1984 impressed even my Reagan-voting mother. Ferraro's story of having her credit card application rejected in 1978 when she was a member of Congress earning 60,000 dollars a year stuck with me -- reinforced by my mother's similar takes of women's credit rejections in the 1970s. And that was nearly 60 years after women's right to vote had been added to the U.S. Constitution. The conditions in the 1840s, when the campaign for women's rights movement had its beginnings, were far more discriminatory, and it took more than 70 years and a wide variety of tactics to get that amendment allowing women to vote into the Constitution. Weatherford's book chronicles those 7 decades when the battle was not only to allow women to vote (a goal some of the activists themselves considered too far-out at first) but for property laws that didn't make a woman's earnings automatically the property of her husband, or the right to speak up in their churches.

The reader meets both well-known figures like Susan B. Anthony and little-known ones like Esther Morris, the U.S.'s first female government official. (She became a Justice of the Peace in South Pass City, Wyoming, in 1870, only a few months after the territory of Wyoming became the first in the U.S. to grant women the same voting rights as men. Indeed, the settlers of the West seemed to have fewer preconceptions about women's abilities and weaknesses than did people in the established East.) The book covers the social milieu, the religious background, the politics, the competing causes such as abolitionism and temperance, and even the personal conflicts that influenced the campaigns for women's rights and particularly the right to vote in the U.S over a stretch of U.S. history that was very important for many other events as well. Women's suffrage is a subjec that got about a paragraph in the American history texts used in the schools I attended -- Weatherford's book could be a wonderful source to make up for the omission of the history of half the American people.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Big Moo: Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable vs. Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

I got both books through BzzAgent, which has a connection to both books; BzzAgent founder Dave Balter is co-author, with John Butman, of Grapevine, which chronicles the site's development, how the site works, how word-of-mouth marketing works in general, and how others can use word-of-mouth to promote their product, even when the some of the word is negative. Balter is also one of the 33 business authors who contributed a chapter to The Big Moo, edited by Seth Godin. (The title is a reference to Godin's previous book Purple Cow.)

I don't run a business of my own, unless you count renting a booth at a craft fair once or twice a year. I work for a small business, but I don't have anything to do with the marketing there. So I don't normally read business books. The Big Moo wouldn't have changed my opinion, but Grapevine was far more to my taste. Why? Well, Grapevine actually talks about specific things; it explains how word-of-mouth campaigns work at BzzAgent (and occasionally how they don't work out so well); how word-of-mouth differs from "buzz" marketing or "viral" marketing or "shill" marketing; who the target people for the word-of-mouth are; and it uses real-life examples as well as following a hypothetical company's product launch from beginning to end). This genuinely interested me, and not just because I'm one of the company's "agents."

The Big Moo, on the other hand, didn't hold my attention. This may be because it has 33 different authors, and despite my copy's front cover calling it "a collaboration of 33 of the world's smartest business thinkers," it's really 33 separate and independent essays. Some go off in different directions, some cover the same ground and get downright repetitive. It's not a sit-down-and-read-a-lot books; maybe the busiest business leader who doesn't have a lot of time to read prefers it that way. But I don't.

The other reason I wasn't thrilled with The Big Moo is that it wasn't about anything specific. It its attempts to apply to all types of businesses, it didn't apply to anything in my life at all. Again, this could be different for someone more interested in running a business organization. The Amazon.com reviews are generally more positive about the book than I am.

Grapevine, however, doesn't require a business position. We're all involved with marketing, as the recipients if not the originators, and so this book is likely to appeal to a wider audience. At least, it appealed a lot more to me.