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Posted: Friday, November 16, 2012 2:46 pm | Updated: 12:44 pm, Fri May 3, 2013.

Ken Burns, the award-winning moviemaker, is a virtual icon of documentaries. Every project he touches is pure gold, monumental and thought-provoking. On Friday, Nov. 16, at 5 p.m., Burns was to be honored with a humanitarian award at Washington University, an event that was open to the public at no charge.

Lately, there’s lots of buzz about Burns because of his upcoming documentary “The Dust Bowl,” a four-hour PBS special airing next Monday and Tuesday nights at 8 p.m.

In preparation for what is sure to be another stellar production, don’t miss “The Dust Bowl, an Illustrated History,” by Dayton Duncan and Burns. The pair shine as they present a compilation of stories gathered from more than two dozen survivors of the Dust Bowl, all folks in their 80s and 90s, some of whom passed on before the documentary was completed.

At the end of the book, pictures of the interviewees are included with explanations of what they did following their experiences living through a horrendous time on the plains in the 1930s, “the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history,” Burns writes.

The lure of land drove homesteaders west to stake their claim. Farmers stripped the grass from the plains to plant their crops. Then the crash hit, and no one had money to buy the food they’d produced. This was followed by years of drought and high winds, swirling dark clouds rising on the horizon that turned day to night, clogged lungs, and created a desert-like environment.

“The Dust Bowl, an Illustrated History,” is packed with photographs that display the agonies suffered during a time that is difficult for us to imagine. This companion book, and the program’s two-disk DVD, would make a brilliant gift for the holidays.

***

Thank you, Ann Lamott, for writing “Help Thanks Wow, the Three Essential Prayers,” a simple, yet eloquent book that makes prayer seem easy. No doubt it will earn a spot on many a nightstand. Each word of Lamott’s new book is pure poetry.

The California free spirit and Presbyterian Church member has a long list of faith-based books, more often than not autobiographical in nature. What writer doesn’t own a copy of “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” an encouraging read that urges even the most faint-hearted to put pen to paper. And then there are Lamott’s books on faith, grace and mercy, among others.

In “Help Thanks Wow,” Lamott is again humble, humorous and human. Like many of us she struggles with understanding why God lets catastrophes happen and compares life to a game of “Chutes and Ladders,” where it seems we move two places forward only to slide further back again as life throws problems and ugly situations our way. God is there for us, Lamott believes, in all the muck and mess, in our doubt and pain.

A moving aspect of “Help Thanks Wow,” is Lamott’s overriding belief that prayer doesn’t have to be formal or time-consuming. But she does encourage us to tell God the truth, to confess when we feel exhausted and depressed, even to turn to him when we have nothing to say and have no idea where His journey is taking us.

“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy — all at the same time . . . Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter, or insane or broken . . . We pray to be of solace, and to find the courage to let people have their feelings.”

Spending time meditating on this small treasure is as uplifting as prayer can be — now that Lamott has shown us how — here’s a gift of a book you’ll want to revisit time and again.

***

Who doesn’t adore Italian food, the scent of a hearty tomato sauce bubbling on the back burner and pizza browning in the oven, the palate-pleasing pleasure of digging into a bowl of pasta al dente? Get set to have your mouth water with “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes, 100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, From Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrees.”

With an across-the-back-fence kind of feel, author Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali invite you to their table, sharing old family recipes passed down by four generations.

The author of eight previous cookbooks, Lidia now shares her favorites. Each recipe is accompanied by a short introduction providing tips and reasons why the dish is popular in Italy. The vast array of recipes includes yummy appetizers and soup, Zucchini Rollups, Tomato and Bread Salad, Italian Wedding Soup, a personal favorite, and one this reviewer can’t wait to try, Roasted Beet Salad with Apples and Goat Cheese.

Easy to follow directions are the rule as the gamut of Italian continues, sandwiches and pizza, pastas, polentas and risottos, sides and veggies, seafood, poultry and meat. Lidia even makes Basic Risotto sound like a snap to fix.

And what would a practical Italian cookbook be without a variety of sauces? American Meat Sauce, Bolognese, Classic Pesto, and more are included as well as sweet treats like Ricotta Cheesecake, Cannnolis, and Limoncello Tiramisù, if you have any room left for dessert?

Perfect for the kitchen beginner or the more seasoned chef, “Lidia’s Favorites” is sure to be the new cookbook that foodies reach for this fall.

/features_people