Thursday, October 30, 2014

Taking a break

I may have mentioned before that sometimes my brain gets a little overwhelmed with the histories I read and I need to give it a break.  I don't mean a break from reading, of course - it's not like I'm going to start watching television, after all! - but a break from heavy and serious stuff.  That's when I usually binge on some YA and kids books.  Here's a few of them:

Boys of Blur by N. D. Wilson was a pleasant surprise.  It's about 12 year-old Charlie Reynolds who left Taper, Florida and an abusive father behind many years before.  Now, he and his mom are back when his step-dad, Mack, is offered the job of head football coach at the high school. Taper is sugar cane country, and when they burn the sugar cane in the fall (to remove the dry leaves), kids chase the rabbits and try to outrun the flames. Charlie has seen some scary things in his life, but nothing prepares him for the frights he faces here - and we're not talking gators and snakes. I don't want to give too much away but this was a fun little book for middle-school aged kids, and I think boys, in particular, might enjoy this fast-paced and sometimes scary story with interesting characters.  Supposedly there are elements of Beowulf in the story.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer is a pretty amazing story about loss and dealing with grief.  Twelve year-old Grace's life has been one of constantly moving. But when her mom dies in an accident, she ends up at her grandma's house - a grandma she's never met, and a grandma who put Grace's mom on a bus when she was 17 and pregnant. She struggles with the adjustment and schemes to get herself sent back to live with Mrs. Greene and her best friend Lacey. But then Grace starts finding little clues that she believes are being sent by her mother, leading her to something. The writing is beautiful and the story twists and turns as though answers aren't always easy, and Grace has to keep struggling to find them. Robert Frost's poetry is threaded through the story, and although it deals with a sober topic, I never felt that it lost sight of Grace's grief - or her grandmothers - and dealt with it in an appropriate way. 

Finally, Torn from Troy: Odyssey of a Slave: Book 1 by Patrick Bowman was another that surprised me - mostly because it's basically the story of The Odyssey by Homer, which was one of those books I read the Cliffs Notes for instead when it was assigned back in high school.  But this is retold as the story of Alexi, a fifteen year-old Trojan boy who is enslaved by Odysseus, who is called Lopex in this story.  Alexi ends up helping the Greeks through the storms they face at sea and getting out of some of the troubles they get into, like the Cicones they try to steal from, the bewitching lotus-eaters... and even bigger problems.  And as he learns a grudging respect for his captors, he also earns respect from them.  I liked this one so well that I'm going to track down the rest in the series, and I might even go back and read The Odyssey and The Iliad.  (Miss Haltiner would be proud!)

(I received Boys of Blur and The Secret Hum of a Daisy from Amazon Vine.  Torn from Troy was a 2014 audiobook download from SYNC.)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Who you calling a "jerk?"

Norman Rockwell said that he painted life as he'd "like it to be," and I like that sentiment.  His illustrations mostly "[exclude] the sordid and ugly" and show the "ideal aspects" of an "ideal world."*  The world he paints is one mostly of honest and upstanding citizens and innocent kids enjoying ball games and soda fountains.  I'm old enough that I remember seeing soda counters (although I don't know if they actually mixed "sodas" anymore at that time) and they seem like a relic of a simpler age.  There was one in the old Earl's Pharmacy where we used to buy candy and comic books.  There was another at the old Snelgrove Ice Cream parlor on South Temple in downtown Salt Lake, although I only ever ordered ice cream.  I think both places are gone now, and the world seems a little poorer for it.

So maybe it was with that nostalgia in mind that I got The Soda Fountain: Floats, Sundaes, Egg Creams & More--Stories and Flavors of an American Original by Gia Giasullo and Peter Freeman of the Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain (I received a free copy from Blogging for Books for review purposes).  Interestingly enough, it starts out with about 50 pages of history on soda fountains, which enjoyed a heyday during Prohibition (so much for the Norman Rockwell image).  They explain the origins of the term "soda jerk" (the guy behind the counter mixing your soda), give a few historical accounts of the dangers of working with carbonated water, and even offer a little history on the Brooklyn Farmacy itself.  (This is my second cookbook from an establishment in New York, so maybe publishing your recipes is the new thing for trendy eateries?)  The recipes start out with the syrups, and some (like the cola syrup) are complex and involved.  Several of them call for such exotic ingredients as "orange flower water" and "dried hibiscus flowers," but those are almost always listed as "optional."  I went for the simpler recipes, and several are actually very easy - and tasty! - and finding plain carbonated water at the grocery store turned out to be much easier than I thought it might be.
Although you can mix a simple soda with the syrup, subsequent sections use them in floats and egg creams (something I'd never heard of).  And the book is extremely well organized, with each recipe giving the page numbers for the syrup and the syrup recipe references where else it's used.  (There are also a number of options for mixing the syrups for someone who's "not in a temperance mood.")  They explain the proper techniques for making egg cremes and advocate artfully hanging the ice cream on the edge of the "float glass" for your floats.  Several of the syrups also produce a "compote" which can be used as toppings for ice cream and other treats.  In fact, the book seems to have recipes for everything you can order at the Brooklyn Farmacy, even the ice cream sundaes and splits plus the toppings to go with them, as well as the milkshakes, cookies, and other baked goodies that look delicious (maybe sometime I'll get a chance to visit and find out).

And while I find the recipes very good and a lot of fun to make, the real popularity of the book in my house hit me when the kids were having a bunch of friends over and Jamie went ahead and bought everything and asked me to make raspberry sodas for them.  She didn't realize that it took almost an hour to make plus time to cool, so only the kids who stayed late got some, but that only meant I was mixing raspberry sodas for her for several days afterwards!  I think I'd better plan ahead for when she wants a pineapple soda - that one takes 24 hours to make - and I'm looking forward to it already!

*The full Norman Rockwell quotes are: "The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be", and "I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it - pictures in which there are no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers... only foxy grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys who fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard."

Friday, October 17, 2014

"After all, it's a desk job."

"I suppose of all those [candidates] mentioned he will be the easiest one to beat."  Herbert Hoover, 31st US President
"I do a lot of things I can't do." 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd US President

We live in a world that is vastly different than it was a hundred years ago.  The crippling diseases people feared back then aren't even in the back of our minds now – if we even know what they were or what they did.  True, we have new diseases to fear, but how scared are you really of contracting Ebola?  Contrast that with the threat of polio which could leave its victims handicapped for life.  And this was before handicapped parking stalls and the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Being "crippled" could ruin your ability to work and provide for yourself or family.  It made it difficult to get around and made you dependent on others, and in some ways it took away your privacy.  It made people look at you differently, as if you were "unclean."  That was the reality.  And yet, the American people elected a polio victim as president in 1932.
“Eleanor Roosevelt and others said polio changed Roosevelt, that it made him more compassionate. That may be so. But the first impact of the disease was to call forth elements of his nature that no one had seen before  elements that even he may not have known he possessed. His decision to defy polio was a critical moment in his life perhaps the critical moment.” pg. 132

Franklin Roosevelt wasn't much like his uncle, Teddy Roosevelt, the "rough-rider" with his bully pulpit and big stick philosophy.  In fact, Franklin was a bit of a "dandy;" tall, handsome, charming, full of life, and with a very promising political career ahead.  In his excellent book The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, James Tobin explains how FDR probably contracted the polio virus at a Boy Scout retreat.  He tells what it does to the body and why Roosevelt may have been especially susceptible to its harshest effects.  It was uncommon for a 39 year old man to contract the disease, and he went undiagnosed and improperly treated for weeks.  But he also tells of his efforts to walk again, and how he overcame the public stigma attached to the disease.  And the account of how he eventually ascended to the presidency is quite inspiring, convincing people he could do the job.  "After all," his son Jimmy said, "it's a desk job."
And this is the crux of the book.  I've often read that FDR tried to hide his disability, and even the recent PBS special said photographers were "forbidden" to take pictures that showed his vulnerability.  Tobin describes how FDR actually used it to his advantage, promoting the progress he had made and his fight to overcome its effects.  He points out the many times he was seen in public – by huge gatherings at the Democratic conventions – and the letters that were written to him.  He tells of his efforts to connect with other sufferers and his business venture at Warm Springs, Georgia to develop a sanctuary where polio victims might recuperate and regain some of their abilities without having to worry about how they appeared to others.  People may have overlooked his handicap, and photographers may have declined to take his picture while being carried or lifted out of a car, but that was out of respect for his privacy and dignity (another thing that has changed dramatically in 100 years).

I don't know a lot about President Roosevelt.  He did a poor job of handling the Great Depression, and some credit him with making it last as long as it did.  As an economics student myself I've wondered at some of his stranger policies.  And yet, I've always been surprised at how absolutely revered he was by so many!  Tobin does an excellent job of explaining the illness and bringing a humanity to Roosevelt's suffering, despite the lack of a personal record (which Tobin laments more than once).  His accounts of how it affected his family and how FDR still managed his presidential aspirations are fascinating.  Having seen friends deal with debilitating medical conditions, I think I have a small idea of how discouraging it might have been.  Yet, as Tobin points out, FDR refused to be beaten by it and used his bright personality and ready smile to encourage others.  Tobin even makes a strong case that Roosevelt became president because of his disability.  It's an argument I found convincing, and it gives a lot more depth and meaning to his famous quote that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Friday, October 10, 2014

A "Sweet" giveaway

So you might have noticed that I've started reviewing cookbooks lately.  Yes, it makes sticking to the diet that much harder, but I can't help myself.  Honestly, I should get cookbooks for healthy food, but where's the fun in that?  At any rate, BloggingforBooks is giving away a copy of Food Network's Sweet: Our Best Cupcakes, Cookies, Candy, and More through the Read it Forward program - which apparently gives away a new book every week.  I loved their Treat Yourself cookbook, full of recipes for classic snacks (I loved the oatmeal cookie recipe so much I haven't moved on to try any of the others!).  If you're interested, click here, and if you win let me know - or better yet: bake some cookies and come share them with me!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Sweet and Salty diet

A few years ago my sons and I were in New York City.  When I asked Taylor what he wanted to see - Statue of Liberty, the WTC/Ground Zero, the Empire State Building? - he said Carlo's Bakery.  What?  That annoying reality show?  So, we figured out the subway routes and schedules to get to Hoboken (it's across the river in New Jersey) and read somewhere that you need to get there early, which we did.  And there were a few people standing around in front, but not what we were told to expect.  'Where's the line?' we asked, and someone pointed across the street to this huge mass of people.  By the time we found the end of it over a block away we decided it wasn't worth the wait and bought a cannoli in Little Italy instead - and no waiting! 

But one thing I learned from that is that New Yorkers (or maybe it's just the tourists) go overboard about bakeries.  One that might be making a legitimate bid to be the 'next-big-NY-bakery' is Ovenly in Brooklyn.  A couple of friends, Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin, got together and have turned their passion into what sounds like a very popular place.  And I was fortunate enough to receive their hot-off-the-presses cookbook, Ovenly: Sweet and Salty Recipes from New York's Most Creative Bakery, from GoodReads.  And their signature seems to be the mix of sweet and salty in their mouth-watering goodies.  When they use chocolate they prefer it to have at least 60% cocoa content, so it's on the bitter side, and many of the recipes are topped with a light sprinkling of coarse sea salt. 

I'll admit I was skeptical.  Some of the recipes are a bit involved and intimidating for a novice like me, so I found some of the easier ones and dove in - and they were very good!  One in particular, the "Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies," which they claim is not just "the perfect vegan chocolate chip cookie," but "the perfect chocolate chip cookie.  Period."  Okay, that might be stretching it a tad, but it was really good!  The chocolate didn't taste bitter at all, and - although I didn't put salt on all the cookies - it's an interesting and perhaps even addicting combination.

The book gives some background on Agatha and Erin and how they got started, as well as some "essential tools and ingredients," which is kind of nice for really ambitious bakers.  Recipes fall under the following categories: scones & biscuits; quick breads & coffee cakes; muffins; cookies & shortbreads; pies & tarts; brownies & bars; cakes & cupcakes; baking for the holidays; fillings, frostings & sauces: and bar snacks.  Some recipes (like the above mentioned chocolate chip cookie) specify to follow the instructions exactly, while many others suggest variations and encourage experimentation.  The pictures are beautiful (as is the book) and make me want to try lots of recipes (although many of them contain coffee and alcohol, and I abstain from both).  Nonetheless, I plan to keep working my way through the others as well as I can and hopefully still stick to my diet and lose weight.  But that shouldn't stop you from making them!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Return of the romance

A friend recently suggested I ought to read romance novels.  My first reaction was "huh?" followed quickly by "why?!?"  But after thinking about it (and knowing my friend was just joking), I realized I have read a few books that I think qualify.  I really liked Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, and Sweet Misfortune and The Final Note by Kevin Alan Milne were both quite good.  I was told that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand don't really count, but surely Wuthering Heights does?  I don't think anyone who's read Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd would argue it wasn't a romance, and I just finished The Return of the Native by the same author, although it took me two tries to get through it.

The "native" is Clym (Clement) Yeobright, who returns home to Egdon Heath, a small village on the English moorlands.  He's grown disillusioned by a business career in Paris, and wants to become a teacher for the poor instead.  But the love interests in this story go far beyond a simple triangle - it's more like a... a love-pentagram, I guess.  Clym's cousin, Tamsin (Thomasin) was engaged to marry a local innkeeper named Damon Wildeve, who suffers from a wandering eye.  In fact, Wildeve had something of an illicit relationship with Eustacia Vye, a dark-haired beauty who longs to escape the heath for a more adventurous life.  The final piece of the story is Diggory Venn.  Venn is a "reddleman," a traveling salesman of a red chalk used for marking sheep, and the hazard of his trade is that the chalk also colors his skin red.  But in spite of making him look like a devil, Venn is actually a very decent guy, and the story opens with his return to Egdon as well, bringing the unfortunate Tamsin, whose wedding to Wildeve in a neighboring town didn't happen due to a mistake with the license - and, of course, Diggory had unsuccessfully proposed to Tamsin a year before.

So, just to sum it up: Diggory still carries a torch for Tamsin, who feels obligated and honor-bound to Wildeve, who is really in love with Eustacia, who sees Clym as a possible escape from a dreary and provincial life on the heath.  Got that?  Naturally, no one marries the right person.  What a boring story that would've made!

I don't usually worry about revealing the plot and outcome with classics, but in this case I suspect the story isn't widely-read or familiar to most, and I've probably said too much already.  But as easy as it is to like the noble Venn (who reminded me of the solid Gabriel Oak), Hardy depicts each of the characters in such a way that you can relate to and sympathize with all of them.  Eustacia seems so beautiful and exotic (as well as aloof) to the villagers that some of the women believe she's a witch, and yet you can't help but feel her longing to escape for something more exciting.  I even felt bad for the fickle Wildeve, who is kept from the woman he really loves by the social expectations and customs of the community.  Even the setting of the fictional Egdon Heath, which is almost pagan-like with its bonfires and traditions, adds a layer of fascination and appeal to this ill-fated love-... um, pentagram.

And yet, as interesting as that all may sound, it still took me two tries to get through it, because - after all - it's a romance.  The tragic nature lends some interest - and I've enjoyed others like Main Street, O Pioneers, and The Good Earth, that have elements of a romance in them.  But honestly, romances aren't really my thing, and I mostly enjoyed the well-developed characters and the very human dilemmas they face which we sometimes see echoed in our own lives.  Plus, there's Hardy's beautiful language which can bring a place alive with so many subtly-nuanced words that you'll want a dictionary at hand to truly understand and see the color in his story.

So, while I won't be cracking any steamy bodice-rippers or the more circumspect "bonnet-rippers" (aka Amish romances), don't be too surprised if I come back with another classic that borders on romance.  Although, I think it's a safer bet that I'll be reading a history, maybe even one that recounts a long-ago love story.