Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ermahgerd, how is November almost over?!

Hello readers! I can’t believe it’s almost Thanksgiving. Things have been a little slow around here due to the inescapable reality of things being busy in life, but I wanted to get one post in before the holiday madness begins. I haven’t been finishing many books lately (again with the busy), but I thought I’d do the review-in-progress thing for a couple that I’m flailing about in the middle of, note a few upcoming ones I’m looking forward to reading, and other sundry book-related stuff. I’m also very excited for Entertainment Weekly’s holiday shopping guide! It’ll have a section dedicated to books, so you can expect me to prattle on about that for a while whenever it arrives in my mailbox. So, what have I oh-so-valiantly been trying work my way through?

Books I’m Reading

Look! A pretty cover! And a biography of Cleopatra!

I’ve been stuck in the first hundred pages of this one for a couple weeks, and I just don’t understand. When this one was sitting on the library stack in the corner of my room, I would cheat on the books I was actually reading by going over and flipping through its pages, and the passages I opened up to would be really absorbing and I’d have to tear myself away to go finish the books I was focusing on. But strangely enough, now that it’s time for me to focus on this one, I can’t. It’s not that it’s boring—it’s just very slow going for me for some reason, which is so confusing considering how I got sucked in before. Ten pages is about my limit before I starting thinking to myself, I’ll just rest my eyes for a minute, and then read some more… before nodding off.

I’ve learned a lot, though—for instance, I somehow completely missed in my years of education that the Ptolemies of Egypt were not actually Egyptian at all, but Macedonian Greek. Pharaohs who weren’t Egyptian?! I feel a little betrayed! The writing somehow dances a line between feeling academic and popular history-ish, which I’m mostly okay with. But I do keep wanting the footnotes to provide deeper explanation of things mentioned in passing in the text above, rather than tangents with little to do with the thing they’re footnoting. And that’s another thing I’m having trouble with: The author, though writing a biography for general consumption, presupposes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, and mentions esoterica in passing with a feeling of, “Oh, everyone knows about that!”, or will refer to interesting things obliquely and then not provide further information. For example, there’ll be something like, “Though Cleopatra made terrible snickerdoodles, there was in fact an ancient king in the middle east who made the most scrumptious cookies around,” and then move on to talk about Cleopatra and Marc Antony’s home life WITHOUT TELLING US WHO MADE AWESOME COOKIES. So…we’ll see. This one might be going back to the library without me finishing it, but I’ll try a little more first.

I’ve only read one of the short stories in this anthology, but I’m enjoying it so far. It’s a book of retro sci-fi stories about “Old Mars,” a.k.a the Mars of aliens and canals and Edgar Rice Burroughs, compiled by longtime partners-in-editing, George R. R. Martin (of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fame) and Gardner Dozois. I like the idea of taking the older, pre-space exploration sci-fi ideas and bringing them back and revisiting them in an era after the discovery that the reality of Mars is not completely in line with the imaginations of those early sci-fi writers. There’s an element of fantasy to it (which I guess can be said of all sci-fi, when you get down to it), and it’s really fun. More thoughts to come after I’ve digested more stories! It’s hard to go wrong with GRRM. Which bring us to…

Books I’m Excited to Read

I know a lot of book blogs do the “Waiting on Wednesday” meme where each week on Wednesday they highlight an upcoming book that they’re excited to get their hands on, but…I’m not sure memes are my thing. And I don’t know if I could keep it up every week. AND it’s Tuesday, so I choose to be the salmon swimming against the meme current. I do what I want!!

Anyway, I am very much looking forward to the fantasy anthology Dangerous Women, edited (again) by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, out on December 3rd. Many of the stories appear to be set in fictional worlds with which I’m not terribly familiar (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, to name a few), but many seem to be standalones, too. And, of course, the main reason for my interest is GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire novella “The Princess and the Queen,” which while sadly doesn’t feature Dunk and Egg, covers the tumultuous period of the Targaryen civil war 200 years or so before the events of the ASoIaF cycle proper. I am definitely one of those OH MY GOD GAME OF THRONES BOOKS WESTEROS I LOVE YOU I WILL READ ANYTHING YOU WRITE ABOUT IT GEORGE people, so this is a wonderful thing to be published right around the holidays (say, you think they did that on purpose?). You can read an excerpt of GRRM’s story here, and find excerpts of the other stories via Tor.com as well. Entertainment Weekly gave the overall collection a B and George’s story a B+, so I’m excited to read and see how my own evaluation holds up against theirs. Oh, here’s the not-particularly-inspiring cover:

What books are you reading? What are you looking forward to picking up soon? Let us know!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: The Different Girl

Title: The Different Girl
Author: Gordon Dahlquist
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication Date: February 21st, 2013
Read: November 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: Sci-Fi
Rating: 4 Good Questions

The Quick and Dirty:

Veronika, Caroline, Isobel, and Eleanor are four girls living on a remote island with their two caretakers, Irene and Robbert. They spend their days taking walks, learning to analyze their surroundings, and napping, until one day Veronika comes across a new girl washed up on the shore. This first contact with the outside world will contrast the 4 girls’ lives in isolation with that of the different girl, and have consequences when other outsiders finally discover their island. It’s really hard to blurb this book without spoiling the fun in reading it, but I thought it was fantastic—steady, lulling reading with an unassuming depth and underlying tension that slowly builds to an affecting climax.

The Wordy Version:

Let me preface this by saying two things: First, that this wordy version will necessarily have things in it that could be deemed spoilery, and second, that this is not a book for everyone. I have been a huge fan of Gordon Dahlquist’s since reading the epic The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (so much so that I ordered the final book of the trilogy from the UK when I learned they weren’t going to publish it in the US—who publishes 2 books of a trilogy and then backs out on the 3rd??), and while this is very, very different from that, it was so, so good. However, it is a book that requires some work on the part of the reader to get the most out of it. You have to read between the lines, look at what is going on beneath the surface, analyze things, and make some inferences if you want to piece together the greater picture. In short, you have to think like the girls in the book. If you like things laid out for you by the author to be easily understood and prefer your endings tied up in a neat bow with no remaining questions, this book might frustrate you. But it quite clearly advertises what it is. Here’s what’s printed on the back of the book: “You will have many questions. You will receive some answers. You will learn to think differently.” Big letters, bold font, easy to see. And so I was very frustrated by all the poor reviews this book has gotten on GoodReads, because in them were many complaints about the book being EXACTLY LIKE IT SAYS ON THE COVER! To my mind, those are the three perfect sentences to sum up the reading experience of this book. I had many questions. I received some answers. I had to come up with other ones myself. And I learned to think differently.

But let’s back up a bit. A self-contained YA volume with no romance?! How refreshing! And although this book is categorized as YA, I think it would be just as at home on the normal science fiction/fantasy shelf, too. The book opens with Veronika telling us this story from sometime in the future, starting with their former daily life on the island, before the different girl arrived. While Veronika, Isobel, Caroline, and Eleanor seem fairly normal for the first few pages, when it is revealed on page 17 that they go to sleep with a button click behind their ear, it becomes obvious that they are (highly advanced) androids or artificial intelligence of some sort. This early revelation resituates the reading of the book, and for me, altered conceptions that I was unaware I’d already formed. Veronika’s straightforward, almost stark narration makes more sense now. Robbert and Irene must be scientists of some type, not simply guardians. Their walks around the island and lessons are teaching the girls to analyze and think the way humans do. The girls know they are different from Robbert and Irene, but they do not see themselves as “robots”—can’t see themselves as robots since the word is never used—just a different type of people.

In their lessons they learn how to analyze, how to think, and I found this exploration of cognition and thought processes to be fascinating. For most people, how you look at the world and process things to arrive at conclusions is second nature, or first nature, really. You don’t actively think about it, you just do it. It happens in your brain without actively trying. But seeing the girls learn how to learn gave such a new, enlightening perspective. Watching them develop their thought processes in the lessons with their caretakers, and then extend that learning to things beyond what those caretakers intended and make decisions for themselves was compelling. As Caroline has dreams while she is “asleep,” and as Veronika starts making decisions to deviate from Robbert and Irene’s instructions, you see them coming closer and closer to what could be considered “human.” Some other readers seemed to find it “boring” or “slow,” but I did not.

And then comes May. Veronika finds a girl from the outside world washed up on the beach, and Robbert and Irene nurse this shipwreck survivor back to health. They don’t really know what to do about her, and worry about how she will react to the girls. When May does find out about them, she reacts with scorn and anger, in part from her grief at losing her uncle in the shipwreck, and also because of the outside world’s mistrust of technology. She sees the girls as “other,” but the girls just see her as a different and thus inherently interesting person, and as May spends time with them she learns to see them more as Robbert and Irene do.

The plot has rising action, a climax, and falling action, but it’s not the slam-bang save-the-world sort of plot that is found in a lot of dystopian fiction. It has a much more sedate, thoughtful pace, but there is a tension underlying everything that happens, and you know that it is building to something. When it gets to that something, I found the deaths to be affecting and a testament to how very real, how very person the android girls are. May goes on a similar journey, and seeing her evolving attitude toward the girls has an emotional payoff.

A lot of my enjoyment of the book came from watching things unfold as more information was revealed and pieces started to come together. My perceptions and conception of the characters, the world, and its elements were ever-changing. For example, the reader learns early in the book that the girls are some sort of advanced artificial intelligence, but as you continue reading you develop a more complete picture of them, perhaps different from your prior idea. The girls are described as one each brunette, blond, black haired, and redhead, but as you continue reading and pick up little things here and there you realize that it’s not hair like human hair, but a part of their design to convert solar energy into power. They initially seem capable of most action and movement that humans are (with the exception of swimming), but recurring mentions of the difficulty of walking in sand and holding the banister when climbing stairs show the limits of their mobility and the dangers of them falling. And it’s not until the final conflict of the book when you realize that their hands and feet are not only not capable of the dexterity and range of motion of their human versions, but also look very different, too.

This slowly unfolding and assimilation of different pieces of information also serves to fill in the background of the world. There is no infodump fully explaining the world, but here is the picture that I arrived at from all the clues and reading between the lines: Some time in the future, there is a rift in society concerning technology. Irene describes the two camps as the people who go to school and the people who “believe” (it’s been a couple weeks since I read the book, so forgive me if that wording is a little off). The people who believe have a problem with technology and, by extension, AI. The people who go to school seem to be the learned people of the world—scientists, inventors, the educated. The people-who-believe group distinction is a little murkier—it could be interpreted as the religious, or simply as anti-progress Luddite types. At any rate, the people who believe seem to have the upper hand in this conflict, as demonstrated by the fact that Irene and Robbert have to take such pains to keep the girls hidden on this remote island, and that May’s uncle seemed to be a smuggler of electronics. At one point someone mentions how the sea levels have risen, so it must be after global warming has had some effects. It may sound confusing out of context and the picture is certainly vague, but there’s enough there for the greater situation to take shape in your mind.

And yes, I did still have questions at the end, as the jacket copywriters so cleverly foresaw. Did May’s uncle and his friend die in the shipwreck? Why were Irene and Robbert the ones on the plane with the girls when they were taken to the island, and the other 16 scientists on a different plane? Were Caroline’s dreams a ghost-in-the-shell sort of occurrence, or was their prophetic nature related to her AI analytical capabilities? But these questions didn’t bother me—I enjoyed having thoughts to carry with me and ponder after the last page. I was okay with some things being left to mystery and imagination.

Overall, a really great book, and really different from most other things I’ve been reading lately. I’ve said things like exploration of cognition and the book requires work to get the most out of it, but it isn’t dense or difficult to read like that might suggest. It’s not like reading a textbook or some self-important specimen of literary fiction. I didn’t feel like it had an Agenda or anything like that. It explored the ideas of humanity and hatred-ignorance-intolerance vs. curiosity-acceptance in a microcosm of the greater world in which the story is situated, and did it in ways that I found compelling. The simplicity of the story and writing belie its depth and emotional resonance, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll go all in and recommend this book to everyone (especially sci-fi fans) to at least try, unless you know you don’t like vagueness or being left with unanswered questions at the end of a book. You may find it’s not your cup of tea, but then again, you may end up really enjoying it.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Summer's Last (Foodie) Hurrah

Though I imagine summer is already long gone in most places, in my part of the world it was still in the 90s last week and has only just dipped into chillier temperatures. So for the last hurrah of warm weather and a long-due food-related post, I thought I’d revisit some of my cross-country dining spots on the road trip this past summer that took me to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove and the Betsy-Tacy Houses in Mankato, among other places.

Now, I love the TV show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network. I think it’s so cool that there’s a show that highlights the local mom-and-pop, something-different eateries around North America. It’s even cooler that the show helps bring these places more business—people write in to the show to suggest their favorite local spots, the powers that be choose ones for host Guy Fieri to showcase with his unique blend of jovial humor, foodieism, and respect and appreciation, and people watch the show and are inspired to go try out these places for themselves. So after discovering the nifty Flavortown USA website, with its lists and maps of all the places featured on Triple D, my ma and I decided to hit up a few of the joints in the course of our summer road trip odyssey. We also visited a couple tasty places that, while on our own local food radar, have yet to be featured on the show. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find yourself driving on the long highway through open country USA, when a belly-rumblin’ hits and you find yourself in the vicinity of one of these fine establishments. Even if you’re not, the Flavortown website is good for helping to break out of the fast food routine and find nearby Triple D locations, or to inspire an adventure to discover your own local treasure. Feeling hungry yet? All right people, let’s look at some foodstagramming!

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Mama E’s Soul Food, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. We relied on cell phone navigation to guide us to this place slightly off the beaten path, in a more residential area without many other restaurants or shops around. This no-frills establishment is located in a bright yellow structure that reminded me a bit of the portable buildings at my elementary school, but the food was darn tasty! It was my first ever chicken and waffles experience, and the Guy Fieri special was written right on the menu chalkboard displayed in the ordering area. With our meal we got chicken, a waffle, a side salad, yams, a brownie, and all-you-can drink Kool-Aid for about $14 (if I remember correctly). It was more than enough for food the both of us, and we ended up tucking the yams and brownie in our cooler for a car snack later. It looked like many a visitor had left their mark on the restaurant’s walls, but I was too shy to ask for a marker and add mine! Located at 3838 Springlake Dr., Oklahoma City, OK.

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Crispy chicken + soft waffle = texture heaven!

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Smokin’ Guns BBQ, Kansas City, Missouri. Our next Triple D stop was BARBECUE. Can’t go through Kansas City without trying it, right? As we are deviled egg aficionados, we ordered those to start with—they were pretty standard, with the restaurant’s “sweet heat” rub to liven up the classic a little bit. (They were nommed too quickly for me to get a photo.) Ma got a turkey sandwich, which she expected to be smoked turkey (since it is, y’know, a bbq place), but if it was smoked she couldn’t taste it. I, however, went all in with the spare ribs and sweet potato fries, which were also speedily nommed, as you can see in the photo. The barbecue sauce didn’t make me get up and do a jig, but it was tasty. Overall, while not the best barbecue I’ve had in my life, it was good, and a sure sight better than the fast food options that we were blowing by on the highway. Located at 1218 Swift St., North Kansas City, MO.

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OMNOMNOMNOM. I mean, yes, delicious ribs!

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Lola’s Larkspur Market, New Ulm, Minnesota. Lola’s is a nice little hipster café in downtown New Ulm. The design/décor inside is comfy, eclectic, and cool. You can eat inside or on the patio, which at the time of my visit was covered in pretty flowers in full bloom (see above photo). I ate here many times during the course of my visit. My first experience there was a disappointing pupusa that was the day’s special (I think maybe the masa had gone wonky?), but I’m happy to say things only went up from there. One day I had a Cuban sandwich with some really delightful homemade pickles (honestly, the pickles were probably my favorite part of every meal I had there…slightly sweet and spicy! Yum!). The café also has a full menu of coffee and tea drinks, along with other beverages (I think alcoholic as well?), and some tasty-looking desserts and ice cream. A wide range of drinkables and eats to suit all tastes and cravings—if you find yourself in New Ulm, stop in for a bite before heading to the Wanda Gág House, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, or some other nearby literary destination. Located at 16 North Minnesota St., New Ulm, MN.

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The Cuban sandwich with fantastic pickles!

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Cousin had a chicken potpie with a nice, flaky crust on top.

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All this, while enjoying one of the best views of the main street downtown! Lovely architecture.

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The Valpo Velvet Shoppe, a.k.a. Brown’s, Valparaiso, Indiana. While searching for this restaurant’s website, I was a having some difficulty because I couldn’t find one. Everyone in my family always refers to it as “Brown’s”—that’s the name of the family who owns and runs it, my relatives know them (indeed, many of aunts worked here in their youth!), and thus we always call it Brown’s and that’s what I was Googling. Turns out the real name is the Valpo Velvet Shoppe, after the ice cream which they are so famous for! They’ve been making ice cream since 1947, and there are all sorts of memorabilia and info about the history of the place decorating the colorful parlor. But ice cream’s not all they’re good at—they make some darn good soups and sandwiches, too. Ma and I each had a different type of breakfast sandwich, which were both so good they had disappeared by the time it occurred to me to take a picture. We also had a tasty cheesy potato soup, but strangely enough, no ice cream. Highly recommended for a light lunch or a sweet treat! Located at 55-57 W. Monroe St., Valparaiso, IN.

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Soup and a bright, welcoming atmosphere.

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Even the menu is colorful!

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Dressel’s Public House, St. Louis, Missouri. Dressel’s is located in a very hip-seeming neighborhood in St. Louis, and though we had to pay to park nearby, it was well worth it. Funnily enough, I had just been watching Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives the night before, and it was an episode featuring this place. The coincidence was too much to ignore, so we stopped here for a very yummy dinner. Although the place was hopping, we were seated immediately. But oh, what to choose from the menu of locally-sourced, sustainable goodies…

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We had no choice but to start things off with the fancy deviled eggs, and from there we decided to go with the dishes Guy Fieri sampled on Triple D. The Dressel’s pretzel with rarebit cheese dip was very tasty (although I could’ve done with a higher cheese-to-pretzel ratio), and the porchetta Louie sandwich with pork, rapini, and melty cheeses on a baguette that Guy raved about was very good, too. Of the three, though, I think my favorite was the deviled eggs! Yum. Great atmosphere, friendly staff, and awesome housemade food. Located at 419 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO.

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My photography didn’t quite capture the porky-cheesy tastiness of the sandwich, but I assure you it was great!

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Standard Diner, Albuquerque, New Mexico. For our final Triple D stop before making it back home, we gorged ourselves at the Standard Diner. Located in a remodeled Route 66 gas station from the ‘30s in downtown Albuquerque, this diner puts a modern spin on comfort food classics. Having recently discovered that the only way I like Brussels sprouts is if they’re roasted, we decided to start the meal off with some of those tossed with walnuts, capers, and I believe a bacon vinaigrette. It was phenomenal, and I will be attempting to recreate it in my own kitchen sometime soon. We also tried the day’s soup, which I think was a roasted red chile concoction? Regardless of my poor memory where soup names are concerned, I do remember that it was scrumptious. We really didn’t go wrong with the starters.

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Damn good Brussels sprouts and SOUUUUUP!

At this point we may have already been starting to feel full, but we saw that as no good reason to stop. For dinner proper, Ma went with the bacon-wrapped meatloaf that Guy recommended when the restaurant was featured on Triple D, but I was having trouble deciding between the country fried tuna and the smoked salmon + green chile mac ‘n cheese. When I explained my dilemma to the waiter, he suggested ordering the tuna and a kid’s portion of the macaroni. Best. Idea. EVER. Thanks, waiter! (Like I said, it was a decadent meal.) We shared and tried bites of everything (the lemon risotto cake with the seared country fried tuna was quite good!), and boxed up the rest to put in the hotel mini-fridge and eat for breakfast the next morning. But did we stop there? Of course not! When you’ve come that far you might as well go the whole nine, so we shared a cute little cake (seen above) for dessert. And with our bellies full and happy, we rolled ourselves back to the hotel for a nice, restful food coma. And I already have my next meal at this place picked out for whenever I find myself in Albuquerque again—huevos rancheros with hashbrowns. YUM. Located at 320 Central Ave. SE, Albuquerque, NM.

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All meatloaf should be wrapped in bacon.

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Country-frying tuna would not have been my first thought, but whoever dreamed that one up knew what they were about.

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Spicy, decadent macaroni and cheese.

The Cookbooks

So far there are three Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives cookbooks written by Guy Fieri in conjunction with Ann Volkwein, and they’re full of recipes adapted from ones provided by the proprietors of some Triple D alum restaurants. There are also lots of stories from Guy and the show’s crew about some of the behind-the-scenes things that went on and other stories from on the road, along with funny photos from filming and stories from restaurant owners about how being on the show changed their life and their business. The recipes aren’t super-detailed and the photos included are more of the good times had in making the show than in helping you to prepare the dishes, but it’s enough to teach you how to make some of the good stuff that’s graced your TV screen. And if you’re a fan you might already have an idea of how things should look and how to make them from watching the show! The printing is done in black and white with either blue or red ink thrown in (depending on the book) to liven up the pages a little. Of course I prefer full-color given the option, but this makes them a little more affordable than their color-printed brethren, with a list price of about $20 each. Ann Volkwein and Guy seem to have collaborated really well to end up with a finished product that captures Guy’s personality and way of speaking in a book that makes you feel like one of the crew. They read a little like scrapbooks of the show with recipes included, and there is a handy checklist in the back of each with the addresses and phone numbers of all the restaurants featured on the show at the time of publication. Especially enjoyable for fans of the show, but still interesting for other Triple-D-uninitiated, food-interested folk, these are a lot of fun. Fun fact: Standard Diner’s bacon-wrapped meatloaf and Pok Pok’s Vietnamese chicken wings are featured in the most recent one!
Rating: 3.5 Red Convertibles

Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives: An All-American Road Trip…with Recipes!
by Guy Fieri and Ann Volkwein
Published by William Morrow Cookbooks (2008)
Read in Fall 2013; Got it at the library

More Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives: A Drop-Top Culinary Cruise Through America’s Finest and Funkiest Joints
by Guy Fieri and Ann Volkwein
Published by William Morrow Cookbooks (2009)
Read in Fall 2013; Got it at the library

Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives: The Funky Finds in Flavortown: America’s Classic Joints and Killer Comfort Food
by Guy Fieri and Ann Volkwein
Published by William Morrow Cookbooks (May 14, 2013)
Read in Fall 2013; Got it at the library

What are your favorite local dining gems?

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