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Archive for December, 2010

A year in books…

At the end of 2009 I pledged to read 25 books and read biographies on Presidents Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson and Van Buren. As 2010 draws to a close I feel a slight triumph in the fact that I exceeded my book count by nine books but slight defeat in the fact that I only got through three presidents this year.

Aside from the 34 books I finished this year, I started at least six more I didn’t finish for one reason or another. The most significant of these was The Last of the Fathers: James Madison & The Republican Legacy, a book I struggled with from January to July before giving up on it. If I hadn’t spent those months mired down in a very long and dense study of Madison, I might have gotten through my presidential pledge this year. I also started and got about halfway through All the President’s Men, Dracula, The Count of Monte Cristo (I blame not finishing this one on the fact that I had a lousy translation), Emma and Richard Ford’s Independence Day. I plan to get back to all of these someday (except maybe Independence Day, even if it was one recommended by Josh Ritter).

I also read my first book entirely on my iPhone (The House of Mirth) and my first book about parenting (I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids: Reinventing Modern Motherhood).

The best non-fiction I read was The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed; the best fiction I read was The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth.

And the last book I read was 1906, by James Dalessandro. I bought this work of historical fiction about the San Francisco earthquake and fire before we went to San Francisco in August, and ever since we got home I’ve been looking forward to it. I’m smitten with San Francisco in a way I’ve never fallen for a city before, probably because I had so much time and license to wander around and get to know it during my week there without a lot of structure or formality. Thus, the fact that Dalessandro makes San Francisco into a character in the novel delighted me no end, as most of the streets and neighborhoods he talks about were places I’d either been or knew about in relation to the places I’d been. His main character, besides the city, is a fictional newspaperwoman who narrates the story in first person and switches to third when something happens while she’s somewhere else. Her omnipresence is a little distracting at the outset but ultimately forgivable.

My issue with the book is my issue with all historical fiction — how do I know where the line is blurred between the history and the author’s imagination? Dalessandro absolves himself from this problem by denoting who and what was real, fictional and composite in his afterward, and then makes the following statement: “The events are real: this was San Francisco, and this is what happened. I deferred, at every juncture, to a simple notion: that no one named Rhett Butler fought in the Civil War, nor was he acquainted with a woman named Scarlett O’Hara and yet, where would our understanding of that turbulent moment in American history be without them?”

First of all, Dalessandro flatters himself — nay, is delusional — if he thinks that his novel has anywhere the sweep or cultural impact of Gone with the Wind. Second, the difference between Gone with the Wind and 1906 that he seems to overlook is that Margaret Mitchell did not set out to document a history of an event — she based her story on her grandparents and wrote to leave a legacy of her perceptions of southern life. His book is closer to a work like The Killer Angels, in that he has placed his characters in the midst of one important historical event. The difference, of course, is that while Shaara works mainly with the men history left him, Dalessandro takes the events he wants to write about and makes characters who work for him. Third, I resent the implication that Gone with the Wind is a necessary cog in understanding the Civil War. Perhaps it is enlightening in the quest to understand the proliferation of the Lost Cause theory and is responsible in part for said theory’s continued prevalence in our national story, but if he truly thinks that Gone with the Wind is the be-all, end-all of understanding the Civil War, perhaps I don’t want history from this author after all.

However, as with The Killer Angels, I have to conclude that Dalessandro’s story makes me want to delve into this horrific event and make out for myself where he tells the historical truth and where he embellishes for the sake of his narrative. I think if I weren’t such a nut about historical accuracy I would enjoy historical fiction more, and most of the time I was able to set aside my nuttiness and just enjoy the story. Because it is, after all, a fairly well-written and tense story about a horrible natural disaster mangled by the men who should have been solving problems, not making them.

So with that I close the year of 2010 in books, and look eagerly to 2011. I don’t anticipate having the time or energy to read 34 books — I’ll be lucky if I crack 20 — but I’m looking forward to what the year holds, and to chronicling it here. Happy New Year, friends.

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Earlier in the year, I took a long hard look at my list of Favorite Books on my Facebook profile. I kind of threw a list together when I opened my Facebook account five years ago, thinking that a person who claims to be a great reader and a book lover should have a respectable long list of Favorite Books. I don’t remember now what that list contained specifically; I just know that it was longer than it should have been. It also contained catch-alls, such as “anything where Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover,” and “anything I’m not required to read.”

This, I decided, would not do.

Thus, I culled down my list. As it stands on Facebook right now the list contains the following books:
* Presidential biographies
* Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding
* The Educated Imagination, by Northrup Frye
* High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
* Chicago Poems, by Carl Sandburg
* A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
* Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
* Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
* John Adams, by David McCullough

And I feel like this list is not enough. I have read some very fine literature in my time, and stopped to take a breath as I turned the page as the author wove the story and turned the words. But being fine literature does not automatically mean it deserves to be my “favorite.” Also, there are books I have loved for years, like Anne of Green Gables or Bridget Jones’s Diary, books that share a long history with me and have been there for me, but do they really deserve a place on an adult’s list of “favorites”? Conversely, there are books that I have read once, decided I loved, and therefore debated putting on the list even without sharing that long history. How can I deem a book my favorite if I’ve only read it once? I wouldn’t bestow the title upon an album, a food, a person without some consideration and experience, so why would I do the same for a book? In the last year and a half, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth have taken my breath away and reminded me why I want to write — and read — in the first place. But does that mean they should be on the list?

As a result, I thought I should take a little time while I still have time to read with abandon and reread some of the books I’ve called my favorites, both on the current list and in the past. As I know my tastes have changed, my attention span has changed, my patience has changed, I won’t be surprised if the list changes as well. I also won’t be surprised if there ceases to be a list.

Coincidentally, Roger Ebert (whose I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie was on the Favorite list for a good five years before I decided it was silly to call a book a favorite when it was a compiliation of movie reviews — even if they were excellent movie reviews) decided to do something similar. He said on Facebook yesterday (about the same time I independently started this post):

Having been given this book by a friend who believes I have a lot of time left, I am inspired to begin a new Facebook project. Every day I will post a book I have read and seriously loved in one way or another. Nobody ever spends enough time to my satisfaction looking through the bookshelves of my lifetime, so here’s my opening.

He’s not declaring favorites. He’s simply declaring love. Thus, I’m in good company.

So far I’ve only reread two books I’ve recently (i.e., within the last six years) had on the Favorite list: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Both books deserve their own post, and they will get their own post, but to sum up: Bryson wasn’t as good as I remembered, and Hornby was even better.

Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope there are lots and lots of books waiting for you under the Christmas tree.

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This book makes me want to bake. After reading this book, I want to put on an apron (yes, an apron) and bake cookies all day.

First, three confessions that will inform what I’m about to say:

Confession No. 1: I love to read cook books. I am not a chef; I don’t often get too adventurous with my cooking or my baking. But I love to read cookbooks and imagine that I’ve cooked it all. Not leaf through, not skim, not peruse: I read cookbooks cover-to-cover.

Confession No. 2: I did not grow up with Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book. My mom had the ubiquitous Betty Crocker Cook Book, and gave me one of my own when I got my own place (and I still consult it at least once a week, further proving to me that if I had to choose one cookbook out of the many I have to be my only, desert-island cookbook, it would be Betty, every time), but I had never even heard of said Cooky Book until friends of ours talked about how they’d spent the summer tracking a vintage copy on eBay.

Confession No. 3: I love cookies. If I were on that same desert island where I’d brought Betty as my only cookbook, cookies would be one of my top-five foods I could have on this hypothetical (and apparently well-stocked) island. However, when it comes to Christmas cookies, I have one true love: the peanut blossom, known also as the peanut butter kiss cookie. I don’t care if I have any other cookies at Christmas as long as I have at least one of these.

Having made these confessions, here we go.

I plucked the coverless, much-abused copy of Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book out of the recycle pile at my church’s book fair this spring, not entirely sure what I was going to do with it. But as far as I could tell, it was an original 1963 printing, and my innate nostalgiac and historian of material culture wanted it. As I confessed above, the cookie lover in me does not love Christmas cookies as a general rule, and most of the recipes within the book looked to me as though they were cookies I would bypass on the way to my beloved peanut blossoms come Yuletide. But I wanted it. And it was free. And it spelled “cookie” with a Y. And I had heard that this book was The Gospel According to Betty when it came to cookies.

I sat down with the Cooky Book on Sunday when I realized that it was Christmas cookie time and Mike, God love him, does not share my enthusiasm for the peanut blossom. My head spun with the number of recipes that seemed to center around gumdrops and other indicators of fruitcake. I giggled at the Technicolor photographs of perfectly arranged cookies on paper lace doilies and cake towers, most of them frosted in Crayola colors. I marveled at the gingerbread house with its ice-cream wafer shutters; I scoffed at the perfectly staged kitchen scene where Mom had left a spread of cookies, ice cream, milk in a glass bottle and a note for the owner of the letterman jacket casually tossed on a chair, encouraging her eaters to not only enjoy, but clean up their mess.

And I considered for a moment the book’s intended 1963 audience as it introduced the reader to self-rising flour (an old technology but one General Mills was surely pressing in many recipes), to flour that could be measured straight out of the bag (forget what Mom told you — no need to sift!), and to the changing technology of your oven (adding after every oven temperature what that might mean to you — 375F becomes “quick mod”; 400F is “mod heat”). It nodded back to the reader’s mother and grandmother with heritage recipes, highlighting the most popular cookies since the 1880s at the end of the book. It acknowledged the reader’s changing responsibilities and need for convenience with recipes that could be made using a boxed cake or brownie mix. It kept pace with the fashion of the time, encouraging the use of so much food coloring in some recipes that the finished product looked more like Play-Doh.

As I thought about the woman the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens had in mind with this book, I wondered about the women who lived in our house before we did. Our house was built in 1947 and marketed to people with large families, so it stands to reason that the family who lived in our house had a pretty good chance of having and using this best-selling book. I thought about my grandmothers baking for their kids, and how still to this day my dad’s mom (my Grandma Lou) has a full cookie jar and a freezer full of cookies even though it’s just her and my grandpa. I thought about Betty Draper, who is in my estimation one of the worst television mothers ever but so ridiculously compelling in her selfishness, and how even Betty Draper occasionally bakes for her kids. I used Betty’s photography to illustrate my visions with patterned wallpaper and vinyl-covered chairs, faux-wood paneling and lots and lots of frosting.

I thought about baking with my mom when I was little, and how she let me stand next to her on a kitchen chair, measuring and pouring ingredients even when I’m sure it would have been easier for her to just do it on her own. I thought about how my mom always baked chocolate chip cookies for me and my dad even though she has been allergic to chocolate since 1984. I thought about our daughter, still three months from entering the world, and how someday in the not-too-distant future it will be her standing on a kitchen chair and me teaching her how to crack an egg without getting the shell in the bowl.

It was all I could do to not get up, preheat the oven to “quick mod” and start baking cookies — any kind of cookies — not just because I wanted cookies (which, face it, if I lept up and baked cookies every time I wanted a cookie, I could single-handedly keep the Gold Medal Flour people in business). No, I wanted to be part of this long chain of Betty’s cookie-bakers. I didn’t want Rachael or Martha or the nice people at Nestle Toll House; I wanted this book, this coverless, battered, well-loved book, propped against my draining rack telling me how many eggs and how much Crisco and reminding me how I could use Gold Medal Self-Rising Flour if I wanted to. I wanted to be part of the world where, as Betty says, “Happy is the home with the full cooky jar.”

So far I haven’t had a chance to get back to the world of cookies. But as soon as I do, I’m starting with this one. And then maybe this one. And then this one

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