Monday, October 31, 2016

What I'm reading this week (10/31/16)

What I finished last week:

I finished the last of my October reading list last week, completing three books in one day. Wahoo!

The first book finished was Firefly Hollow. It's a sweet book for children, but it didn't burn me down. It's the story of a firefly (named Firefly), a cricket (named Cricket), and a vole (named Vole) who have big dreams. Cricket wants to learn to catch like Yogi Berra. Firefly wants to fly to the moon. Vole wants to fulfill his river-soaked destiny. And then there's the miniature giant, Peter, who is grieving the loss of his friend, Charlie. They all must learn to live the best life they can. I guess that's the moral here. It would be a good read-aloud for small children, I think, but I just never connected with it. The few full-page color illustrations, however, are gorgeous. My rating: 3 stars.

Jane Kenyon's poetry collection, Otherwise, assembled by her and her husband, fellow poet Donald Hall, in the last months of her life, is a stellar collection. I found many of my favorites here, and I found many good new-to-me poems. This might be my favorite poetry collection of the year. If you're looking for poetry, you couldn't do better than Jane Kenyon. My rating: 4 stars.

I admit it, I judge a book by its cover. And I fell in love with the cover of News of the World as soon as I laid eyes on it. It was on a list of National Book Award finalists that I was buying for the library, and I bought a copy for myself. It was a fabulous read. It's the story of a retired army captain, Captain Jefferson Kidd (a real person) who travels throughout post-Civil War Texas reading newspapers from the east coast and abroad to audiences for ten cents a head. He's asked to return a ten-year-old German girl, Johanna, to her family after being captured and raised for a few years by Kiowa Indians. The book is the story of their journey together, Johanna's journey to trust the captain, and the reconstructionist south. There's adventure, great characterization, and a strong sense of place. There's even a gunfight. This isn't my normal read, but I'm so glad I tried something new here because I loved the book. The author has done so much so beautifully and in such a short book. It's beautifully written, and it's thought-provoking. I loved both of the main characters. The captain is strong and steady and moral. Johanna is too full of spunk to be pitied, though her situation is heartrending. I highly recommend this book. It was a great palate-cleansing read. My rating: 4.5 stars.

Last week I began:

Having finished my October reads early, I began my November chunkster, A Gentleman in Moscow, last week. I'd read nothing but good regarding this book, and even though I'm not far in it, I am in love. The plot, from the Amazon description: "In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin." I love books with a strong sense of place, and this one, being set in a hotel--and often, one small room in a hotel--has that. The writing is superb, and the characters are rich and full.

I also began Jenny Rosenstrach's new cookbook, How to Celebrate Everything, which I've been dying to begin.

And I began Jacqueline Kelly's chapter book, Skunked! featuring Calpurnia Tate of her Calpurnia Tate series. So far, so good.

My audiobook:

I'm liking Monica Wood's The One-in-a-Million Boy very much. I'm unsure if I'd like it quite as much if I'd be reading it in paper, though. It's just so much easier for me to take in contemporary fiction by ear than by eye.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

American Cake - Author Interview

Every now and then I fall in love with a book for its perfect balance of history and visual interest. American Cake is one of those books. While I'm not much of a baker or sweets eater, I do love a good slice of cake from time to time. My childhood memories involve helping my mother mix up a cake at the kitchen table. She made all her cakes from scratch (still does), and her date cake with sugar and chocolate chips on top is one of my favorite foods on earth.

What I enjoyed so much about Anne Byrn's American Cake is that it takes you on a tour of the history of cakes down through the American centuries. Cake has evolved over time, with each era having its own distinguishing features. Whether it's colonial, Civil War-era, post-World War II, or the present day cupcake craze, Americans have always loved their cake.

Anne Byrn is the former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and author of 12 books including the New York Times bestselling cookbook The Cake Mix Doctor (Workman, 1999). I recently had a chance to ask Anne Byrn some questions about her new book, her research process, and cake in America.

There’s a feeling out there that cooking is a creative endeavor but baking is a scientific one. What do you think of that characterization and do you find baking creative or scientific?

Anne Byrn
(photo credit: Ashley Hylbert)
This characterization isn’t correct. If I wanted to get technical, I could argue that both baking and cooking are scientific. There are rules and ways to cook—sear meat, whisk together an emulsified vinaigrette, squeeze lemon juice over apple slices so they don’t darken, and remove the lid from a soup while it simmers and reduces. Perhaps because we cook more than we bake, these cooking steps we use to prepare dinner become less scientific and more natural to us? Baking clearly depends on science to be successful—knowing ratios of flour to sugar to butter to eggs, for example, in cake baking troubleshoots an unknown recipe. But with practice and repetition, the science of baking becomes ingrained in the way we cook, too. Both baking and cooking benefit from creativity. If you are creative, you are flexible with new ingredient substitutions—you don’t panic and run to the store! You see cooking and baking as creative ways to preserve your sanity. And what you create—both savory and sweet—is pleasing to the eye and the palate. So others adore you!


Your book combines two of my favorite topics, food and history. What made you decide to write a book about the history of cake in America?

I credit a friend and author in Nashville—Alice Randall—with not just suggesting this idea but pointing her finger at me during a book launch party and telling me to write this book. I greatly admire Alice, and so I wasn’t about to let her down. And she said I was the logical person to do the research as I had been a newspaper journalist. Once I began the project, I was hooked. Either way you approached this book—through history or through recipes themselves—it was a fascinating process.

What are the major differences between an 18th-century cake, a 19th-century cake, a 20th-century cake, and a 21st-century cake?

What an interesting way to ask how our American cake has evolved! The ingredients, technologies, people baking the cakes, and the reasons for baking cake in America have changed through the centuries. In the 18th-century cake, people used what they could afford and what they grew. They bought local. An example was the first American cheesecake made by Quaker dairy farmers. If you baked with white sugar, you were wealthy because sugar was imported and expensive. Frostings as we know them were nonexistent. Sugar might be sprinkled over a cake and run back into the wood-fired oven to produce an icy glazed look—icing. In the 19th century, sugar is grown in America and becomes more affordable. Leavening in cake baking improves, and baking powder is invented. This gives rise to the American layer cakes as we know them. And immigrant populations—German, Eastern European, Scandinavian—share their recipes and they become part of our heritage. A 20th-century cake, in comparison, changes the most. In the first part of the century it is much like the 19th-century cake, but it is affected by two world wars, Depression, and economic uncertainty in our country. The early 20th-century cook was resourceful, frugal, turning nothing into something. This was birth of the applesauce cake, victory cakes, war cakes, cakes that took immense creativity to pull off as you were baking by a ration list. After World War II, gas ovens, electric ovens, the suburbs, rise in commercial bakeries, cake mixes, Betty Crocker, etc.—you could say that cake baking made a dramatic shift in the second half of the 20th century. And it was refined more as the century closed out—influenced by the French cooking movement and also the peace movement of California in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, our 21st-century cake is smaller and has less frosting like its predecessors, and it is made of natural, local ingredients. This will continue as people today crave desserts with pure flavor. Hispanic cooks have shared their Tres Leches Cake and Chocoflan cakes, and these are mainstays in many parts of the country. Cakes have always been baked to celebrate and honor, and this has remained true as cakes are present at birthdays, anniversaries, and other festive events.


What has America brought to cake-making? How did America change cake-making?

America brought new ingredients, new challenges, and a new mindset to baking cake. Think about the local, wild strawberries and blackberries that grew across our country when it was settled. They were the beginning ingredient of an American classic—jam cake. But jam cake was a German heritage cake, and it is still made in Germany today. So what is American about this cake? The caramel icing poured over it in places like Kentucky and Tennessee where southern sugar was caramelized in an iron skillet made jam cake American. In other areas of America—New England—molasses was the cake sweetener. It was the symbolic revolutionary ingredient in gingerbread and other American cakes. The gingerbread recipe might have been English, and it might have called for treacle, but the early American baker used local molasses. It was this new mindset and creativity, updating old European recipes with fresh, new eyes and with an American spirit—this is what became our cake.

Japanese Fruit Cake
(photo credit: Mitch Mandel)
Your research process for this book really must have been something. Can you tell us about that?

My research was really all over the place. I interviewed and wrote in the daytime hours, and I researched at night. I started with a framework of recipes that needed to be in the book—pound cake, red velvet, German chocolate, etc.—and left myself a lot of wiggle room for the unexpected cakes—Lazy Daisy, Burnt Leather Cake, Harriott Horry’s Water Cake. To figure out the origins of cakes and ingredients, I searched old newspapers. To understand trends and regional differences, I looked to old cookbooks. When specific trends emerged—like the turning white of the wedding cake, Prohibition, lightening of cake due to baking powder, or absence of sugar post-Civil War—then I put on the brakes and would dive into this topic fully to understand it. I relied on the guidance of many people during this process. These were historians and experts, and I name them in the Acknowledgments in the back of the book.


I’m fascinated to know about the cake testing that must have happened. Did you do all of it yourself? Was there a baking team or a test kitchen?

My baking team consists of myself and my trusted, longtime assistant and friend Martha. We hand-tested each and every recipe, often multiple times—especially that darned Delta Caramel Cake—to make sure the recipes were as flawless as the text was intriguing. No fancy test kitchen. But I do have a Wolf electric oven, which I love, and Martha bakes in GE.


What discovery surprised you the most while researching your book?

The project was a series of fascinating discoveries! That dyeing cakes red like our Red Velvet is old. The Victorians loved to create food that appeared different than itself, and their watermelon cake is an example. They dyed the cake red with cochineal, a dried beetle that had been used to dye fabric red. It is still used as a food dye outside the United States, by the way. I learned that chocolate was first thought of as a health food, and it made a slow entry into cake baking. And I learned that tea rooms helped usher in social change and women’s rights in the late 1920s.


What, if anything, has studying cake through the centuries taught you about the American psyche?

That Americans have accomplished much as a nation. That our classic cakes reflect hard work and hard times. Our cakes also reflect a diversity of backgrounds, of time periods. Our cakes speak happiness but also resiliency. Americans are good when we bake off-script. We can make it happen. 


Orange Chiffon Cake
(photo credit: Mitch Mandel)
Knowing what you do about the history of cake in America, what trend do you anticipate in American cake-baking?
Hopefully, we will see some new American classics! For a while we will continue to see smaller cakes and cakes with less frosting. We should be able to bake with local flour some day, and it will be interesting to see if we can taste the difference in this new local cake. Bakery cakes may work for weddings and large events, but for birthdays and smaller occasions, the home kitchen will be the place to bake the cake. And baking a cake at home with ingredients you know and a recipe you have preserved in your family will be the ultimate luxury.


I’ve always loved a good cupcake as much as the next person, but what is with the cupcake frenzy that has seized the nation the last few years? Is it over?

I hope so! Cupcakes were originally baked as a World War II treat, shared by co-workers at American factories. They became rock stars in 1998, thanks to Sex in the City and New York’s Magnolia Bakery. It’s mostly over. It needs to be.


And lastly, the question that you’ll likely be asked a thousand times on your book tour: What is your favorite cake and why?

Give me a good pound cake, any pound cake. I love the density, the clarity of flavors, the timeless quality, and how pound cake is appropriate any season of the year.

If you're looking for a great gift idea for the baker in your life, consider Anne's book.

Monday, October 24, 2016

What I'm reading this week (10/24/16)

Last week I finished:

Last year I read Daphne du Maurier's masterpiece Rebecca, and I loved it. I'm happy to say My Cousin Rachel had the same moody atmosphere, the same slow build of events, and the same feeling of not knowing who to trust or what will happen next. It's an English thriller-light sort of book, set in Cornwall during, I think, the Victorian period. Philip Ashley's cousin, Ambrose, who raised him, dies in Italy not long after marrying Rachel. When Rachel comes to stay with Phillip, the reader and the young man are left wondering if she's to be trusted. Mysterious letters from Ambrose are penned to Philip, but can they be trusted or are they the ramblings of a fevered mind? I loved this book. I'm not sure I could choose a favorite between it and Rebecca, high praise indeed. Highly recommended, especially when you're looking for a moody, suspenseful read. My rating: 5 stars.

And I finished Anne Byrn's* American Cake, which I just adored. Although I'm not much of a fan of sweets, there's something about cake that I find irresistible. And this book does it right. Byrn gives us the history of cake in America, how it and its ingredients have evolved over the centuries, but also provides numerous sidebars of historical information and helpful techniques. There was a big, beautiful, full-page photo of each cake in the book, which I loved (there's nothing worse than recipes without pictures). Although I don't bake much (at all), there were a lot of cake recipes that I would love to try. I loved the book so much, I bought a copy for my mom (who loves to bake). My rating: 5 stars.

*Author interview this week, I promise!    

I'd put off reading Major Pettigrew's Last Stand all year because I was anticipating a great book and I wanted to save it for just the right time. Happy to report I am not disappointed. As much as I loved her The Summer before the War, I love this one equally. Generally, I enjoy historical fiction more than contemporary, but I also tend to enjoy a good novel set in another country, and this one was that. Very English-y, folks stopping to drink tea every four pages or so, colorful characters. It was a feel-good book but also dealt with deep topics: interracial relationships, sense of place, disappointment in one's children, having difficulty with change. Simonson can write a character better than most, and I enjoyed these characters immensely. The story feels very much like At Home in Mitford--small town life, and Major Pettigrew is a more believable Ove from A Man Called Ove. Mrs. Ali, whom the major falls in love with, is a lovely, strong, and wise Pakistani woman. I didn't rate this one a full five stars because the plot, especially toward the end, veered into the unbelievable and dramatic, and that irritated me a bit. Still, a great read. My rating: 4 1/2 stars.

This week I continue with:

I haven't been marking poems in Jane Kenyon's Otherwise because I'd be marking every other one. If you're looking for a good book of domestic and nature poetry, pick up something by Kenyon.

I'm working my way through Firefly Hollow, and it's getting interesting. Will Cricket and Firefly return to their nations or continue to pursue their dreams with the miniature giant (boy), Peter?

My audiobook:

I'm really enjoying The One-in-a-Million Boy, despite the narrator who I find distracting. The characters are quite good, and I'm feeling a happy ending coming (though I'm only about halfway through).

Next up:

When I finished My Cousin Rachel, I'd planned to pick up The Perfect Horse about the Royal Lipizzan stallions during World War II. I got a couple pages in and realized I just couldn't stomach another World War II book no matter its theme. I substituted News of the World, a National Book Award Finalist and something I've been really excited to read. I'm finishing out October with a lot of fiction, highly unusual for me, but I'm really happy with what I'm reading right now.

Monday, October 17, 2016

What I'm reading this week (10/17/16)

I am currently on a three-day read-cation. I've got my stack of books, my frozen pizza and snacks, and a list of household chores that I will likely not even glance at. This is the life!

Last week I finished:

The latest in Bill O'Reilly's "Killing" series, Killing the Rising Sun, takes a look at the Pacific theatre of World War II. It deals with the vicious atrocities of the Japanese soldiers and President Truman's decision to drop two atomic bombs in order to bring the brutal war to a close. There generally isn't a great deal here that was new to me having read many books about World War II, but it was a good account of the war, the bomb, and Japan. I'd anticipated more information on how Japan went from a humbled, decimated country to one of the world's more powerful countries. I was interested in how you rebuild a country and an economy after the devastation, but the book did not go that far. While the book deals frankly with the brutality of the Japanese soldiers, it's nothing you haven't already encountered if you've read Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. I was especially interested in the letters in the back of the book to the author from Presidents Carter, Bush 41, and Bush 43 regarding if Truman's decision to use the bomb was the right one. All in all, this was a good straightforward account. My rating: 4 stars.

I also finished How to Build a House, a children's fiction/nonfiction book that takes you through the process of building from planning to paint. This is the third book of this series that I've read (there are four), and it might have been my favorite, though I wish they would have had illustrations of the finished interior. I learned a bit too. My rating: 3 1/2 stars. 

And finally, I finished Amy Stewart's Girl Waits with Gun on audio. I really enjoyed this one, and I enjoyed the audio, too. The narrator has a distinctive voice that took a bit of getting used to, but it really fit the main character, and her sister Norma especially. These are not dainty women, and the husky voice fit. This is the story of Constance Kopp and her sisters Norma and Fleurette who get tangled up with a no-good silk-dying factory owner thug, Henry Kaufman. He terrorized the women (bricks through windows, letters in the mail, that sort of thing) to make them stop pursuing him for his part in a motorcar/buggy incident, but another of his crimes is solved as well. Set in 1914, when three women living independently was much less common, Constance finds herself doing things she'd never known herself capable of, and much less, being good at it. I plan to read the next in the series soon, I enjoyed this one so much. And I hope there are many more to come. Check this one out. My rating: 5 stars.

I continue with:

I am loving American Cake. I'm even finding myself daydreaming about baking a cake. Gasp! I'm up to the post-WWII era featuring cakes I remember from my childhood (though I was born much later, the place where I grew up was always a generation behind). And yes, author interview to come; I'm still preparing it.

I'm enjoying Firefly Hollow, but I'm just not emotionally invested. It's a sweet story, though.

Last week I began:

I wanted to read one moody book for October, and My Cousin Rachel seemed the logical choice. I loved Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca so much when I read it last year, that Rachel immediately went on my list. I am probably expecting it to be too much like Rebecca to be fair, but I'm enjoying waiting for things to get mysterious and spooky. So far, so good.

My audiobook:

My current audiobook is Monica Wood's The One-in-a-Million Boy about an absent father, a deceased son, and a 104-year-old Lithuanian immigrant. Oh, and world records. I am quite enjoying it so far, although the narrator will take some getting used to. He reads in a rather effected manner that doesn't match the characters. Maybe he'll grow on me, though. He does a good job with the boy's speech mannerisms.

Monday, October 10, 2016

What I'm reading this week (10/10/16)

Well, fall is definitely in the air up here. The trees are turning brilliant colors, the leaves are falling, the furnace is running, and I've switched to my fall coat. Nothing makes me want to cozy up with a good book quite like this weather.

Last week I finished:

If you're interested in the brain, memory, madness, family secrets, and other intrigue, Patient H. M. is the book for you. It's a fascinating true story of the author's grandfather who performed hundreds of lobotomies in the 1950s up to the 1980s. It's also about the author's grandmother, institutionalized and treated with ghastly experiments. And it's also the story of Patient H. M., a lobotomy patient of Dr. Scoville (the author's grandfather) as a young man, resulting in the lost all of his short term memory capability and was studied ruthlessly for the last many decades of his life. We meet the researchers who claim Patient H. M.'s brain, and fight over its ownership after his death. The book brings up many questions about healthcare and research in America, how sometimes the broken illuminate the whole, and the nature of memory. The author pulls many threads of story and the book has a choppy feeling that made it read much more quickly than a book of its size normally does. The choppiness, to me, mimicked the way memory works--not necessarily in the fluid way we would prefer. It's masterful writing, and I certainly hope Mr. Dittrich will come out with future books. My rating: (a strong) 4 stars.

Last week I began:

I've read all of the books in Bill O'Reilly's Killing series, so I knew I'd read Killing the Rising Sun when it came out even though I'm sick to death of World War II stories. So far, it is very much what I expected: the brutality of the Japanese soldiers, and the rush to produce the atomic bomb. While other books go into different aspects of the story, this book deals mostly with the fighting in the Pacific theatre complete with soldiers' own stories of the various battles.

I've been ridiculously excited for the children's book How to Build a House to come out for months. There's not much I enjoy more than houses and all they mean, so even in children's book form, they fascinate me. (For instance, check out the wallpaper, in Philip and Erin Stead's Lenny and Lucy. Gorgeous.)   

This week I continue with:

I'm still adoring American Cake. I've been spending most of my night-time reading engrossed in it instead of my other night-time reads, Firefly Hollow and Otherwise (poems). Seldom do I get the urge to bake a cake, but I have that urge nightly now. And a reminder to look for an interview with the author of American Cake, Anne Byrn, later this week.

My audiobook:

I'm loving Girl Waits with Gun! I really don't want it to end. I think I'll have to pick up the second (new) Kopp sisters book and continue the story yet this fall. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

October 2016 Reading List

Having finished all of my 2016 reading goals last month, I was able to build an October reading list of nothing but new releases and books I've been saving for the right time. I even got to start several of them early, having breezed through my September books early. I even included a "spooky" book (My Cousin Rachel) in honor of Halloween. I plan to take a three-day read-cation this month, so I may even be able to sneak in another book or two.






 Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Monday, October 3, 2016

What I'm reading this week (10/3/16)

Last week I finished:

Last week I finished the last books to fulfill my 2016 reading goals. From here on out, it's gravy. Good gravy.

I finished Love Warrior early last week, and I've been puzzling my way through my thoughts of it for days now. First, I need to say that I'm a Glennon Melton fan from way back. I read every post on her blog for years, loved her first book, listened to her speak, met her at a book signing. I adore the woman. Her mix of humor, faith, and radical truth-telling really spoke to me. In this book, however, the truth-telling was so radical, I winced through the entire book. Last week, I listened to Glennon on Liz Gilbert's podcast, and Liz called Love Warrior the most honest book about marriage that's ever been written (or something like that). I'd have to agree. She also said something else that I whole-heartedly agree with: she wasn't expecting this book. I wasn't either. I was expecting more of the Glennon's patented delivery, and I was blindsided by the absolute and unrelenting pain in this book. I'm not saying at all that people should avoid the book; I think it's likely good therapy for those who need it. I'm glad I read it. But I do want people with sensitivities to content to know the book deals with big issues in tough ways. Glennon writes about bulimia, alcoholism, abortion, infidelity, sex, and more in a very frank way. (There is "language," too.)  It is not a pleasant book, but it's a book about healing. I was hoping for a more hopeful approach than I got. It pains me to write a somewhat negative review of anything by this author, but I'm not hearing anyone talking about the content of this bestseller, and I think it's important to. My rating: 4 stars.

I finally finished The 50 States. I enjoyed the book overall, but it's likely not a good book to read cover to cover, if my experience is any indication. The book is loaded with information, but my only gripe is that sometimes that information isn't well-chosen for its audience. I laughed out loud, for instance, when on one page (I forget the state) noted the famous resident Lawrence Welk! What ten-year-old kid knows who Lawrence Welk is?! I think the authors thought they were doing a good job bridging the gap between Beyoncé and famous folks of long ago, but Lawrence Welk is an indication of just how tricky the job was. So other than that quibble, I think it was pretty well done. My rating: 4 stars.

How to Build a Plane is a book in a series of "How to Build..." books that mix fiction and nonfiction for children. The drawings are superb, but the explanations might be a little hard to follow. It's like the author didn't have a clear idea of what the audience could handle and what was too technical. This is the second in the series I've read (I also read How to Build a Car), and I've had the same complaint for both. Labeling the parts of an engine is not enough to learn how an engine works. My rating: 3 stars.

Last week I began:

Patient H. M. has not been exactly what I was expecting, but I'm finding it one of the more fascinating books of the year. It's a multi-layered book about the brain and the nature of human memory, but also much more. I only have 100 pages left (it reads very quickly for such a thick book), and I'm waiting for all the threads the author has created to be brought together. It's a fascinating subject and a fascinating writing style. Look for my review next week.

I also just barely started Jane Kenyon's Otherwise, and book of poetry I've been wanting to read for years.

This week I continue with:

And talk about fascinating books, I'm loving working my way through the cakes of the American centuries with American Cake. This book is full of information not just about cake, though. I'm learning so much about ingredients and technique. Loving this one.

Look for a special interview with the author of American Cake in a few weeks!

Although I'm enjoying Firefly Hollow, I'm having trouble truly getting engaged in the story. I enjoy it while reading it, but I seldom want to pick it up to read it. I think it would be a great read-a-loud for kids, though.

My audiobook:

I'm really enjoying my current audiobook, Girl Waits with Gun. The story is very engaging and really pulls me along. The plotting is quick, and there are definitely surprises.