Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. GreenwaldBlindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald
Published by Bantam ISBN: 0345528433
on August 16, 2016
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

I know my own mind. I am able to assess others in a fair and accurate way.

These self-perceptions are challenged by leading psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald as they explore the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality.

"Blindspot" is the authors’ metaphor for the portion of the mind that houses hidden biases. Writing with simplicity and verve, Banaji and Greenwald question the extent to which our perceptions of social groups—without our awareness or conscious control—shape our likes and dislikes and our judgments about people’s character, abilities, and potential.

In Blindspot, the authors reveal hidden biases based on their experience with the Implicit Association Test, a method that has revolutionized the way scientists learn about the human mind and that gives us a glimpse into what lies within the metaphoric blindspot.

The title’s “good people” are those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions. The aim of Blindspot is to explain the science in plain enough language to help well-intentioned people achieve that alignment. By gaining awareness, we can adapt beliefs and behavior and “outsmart the machine” in our heads so we can be fairer to those around us. Venturing into this book is an invitation to understand our own minds.

Brilliant, authoritative, and utterly accessible, Blindspot is a book that will challenge and change readers for years to come.

I read this book along with other administrators and department chairs at my school. While I think it covers an interesting topic well, it’s nothing new to folks who have read The New Jim Crow or who have been engaged in learning and reading about issues of social justice. The book’s real value is in the Implicit Attitude Tests (IAT). These tests are very interesting and typically reveal that we have preferences for people who exhibit the dominant or so-called “default” attribute—white people/black people; thin people/overweight people; young people/old people; non-Muslim/Muslim; male/female. In most instances, even people who share characteristics of the non-dominant group will show implicit bias toward the dominant. For example, many would associate men more with work and women more with the home. Still. There are several tests you can take, and the results are really interesting.

Weirdly, the test revealed I have a preference for black people over white people. I have no idea how to explain this because my results should have demonstrated a preference for white people, especially since I am among that group. Even African Americans who take the test often demonstrate a preference for white people. I was sure I had done the test wrong or “gamed” it somehow. I took it three times. Each time, the result was the same, no matter whether I used paper/pencil, an iPad, or a computer. I just took it again for the fourth time. Same result. Always a moderate or slight preference for African Americans over European Americans. I don’t know what’s up with the result. I’m not disappointed or upset about it, but I am surprised because I expected the IAT to reveal a different result. I have a lot of questions about how malleable the brain is. We are hardwired to categorize and to stereotype because it helped keep us safe when we were developing as a species. Strange “others” were often dangerous. I have done a great deal of work on trying to root out racism. I am not perfect, but I have put in a lot of effort to be better. Has the work I have done in this area changed my brain? I was not raised to be non-racist. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. I had to work very hard to root out explicit bias, so I really expected more of an implicit bias to remain. And in some of the tests, my results revealed an automatic preference for a dominant group. I could stand to lose a few pounds for sure, and my test revealed I have a preference for thin people over overweight people. I demonstrated an automatic preference for non-Muslims over Muslims. The key, as the authors note in the book, is not to beat yourself up because you have automatic preferences you didn’t realize you had—instead, realize you have them and actively work against them. Even the authors admit they have automatic preferences for the “dominant” group when they take the test.

I take issue with the authors’ assertion in Appendix 2:

Explicit bias is infrequent; implicit bias is pervasive. Appendix 1 presented the evidence that early twenty-first century Americans display low levels of explicit (overt) race prejudice in survey studies. This is a well-documented and striking reduction from the overt expressions of prejudice that were commonplace in studies done fifty to seventy-five years previously. (208)

Okay, I know the authors are at Harvard, in the so-called “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” but really? They think explicit bias is infrequent? They must not be on Facebook or Twitter. True, the tiki torches came out in Charlottesville after this book was published, but Donald Trump was campaigning on his hateful rhetoric when the paperback came out. I don’t know where the authors are looking, but I see overt racial prejudice everywhere. I agree implicit bias is pervasive.

Our discussion of the book this morning was rich and interesting. I suppose the main reason this book didn’t earn more stars from me was the fact that much of the information revealed wasn’t new to me, and perhaps that is why the book felt repetitive. This book might be best for people who are just beginning to explore issues of social justice, or for people who haven’t explored it at all.

three-half-stars

Review: The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Review: The New Jim Crow, Michelle AlexanderThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Cornel West
Published by The New Press ISBN: 1595586431
on January 5, 2010
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 312
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

"Jarvious Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

As the United States celebrates the nation's "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status—much like their grandparents before them.

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us--to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

Every once in a while, you read a book, and you think to yourself, this book is one that everyone, no I mean it, everyone should read. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow helped me understand race relations in a way no other book I’ve ever read has ever been able to do. In clear, lucid, and at times even poetic prose, Alexander lays out her argument that our War on Drugs has led to a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately punishes black and brown men—in essence, our prison system functions like Jim Crow segregation.

As I read this book, which was published in the middle of Barack Obama’s first term, I kept wondering how Alexander would respond to the unrest that has followed the election of Donald Trump. Does she see a nation picking off the scab and dealing with its racial inequality in response to a morally bankrupt government? Or is is it even worse than Alexander thought? It’s hard to tell when you’re living in the middle of it. In some respects, I see more white people who are willing to take on the role of activist. But white people also voted for Trump in large numbers.

The racial caste system that is mass incarceration will be difficult to dismantle, and I admit to a feeling of defeat as I closed the book. But we can’t give in to despair, no matter how bleak changing the landscape of race relations in America looks right now.

This book changed my mind about a couple of things by making me think about them from a new angle. One: the legalization of marijuana. A couple of years ago, Massachusetts had a ballot referendum on whether or not to legalize marijuana. It’s already decriminalized, as in, it’s legal to have a small amount of marijuana. I confess I voted against legalizing the sale of pot for one reason: I really didn’t think it was at all a good idea for people to use cannabis. I still don’t, really. I am not sure I subscribe to the notion that it’s harmless. However, I am swayed by Alexander’s argument that using cannabis is probably less harmful, especially to others, than drinking and driving. Should cannabis users take to the roads, I’m not sure what the results would be, but I’d prefer it if being sober remains a requirement for keeping your license to drive. I also think some people, not all, do start using other drugs after trying cannabis. Same with alcohol. Not everyone, of course. I have never tried cannabis myself, and I don’t have plans to do so, so I recognize in some ways, I am not really affected by the issue. However, what I now understand is that we have disproportionately thrown the book at African Americans for using the drug (or at least being caught with it) at the same rates as white people, who generally get the slap on the wrist. If decriminalizing marijuana or even making it completely legal and selling it in smoke shops, as Massachusetts is beginning to do, will prevent black and brown people from being incarcerated for minor drug offenses, I’m all for it. Now.

Another issue Alexander raised that gave me pause is the unhelpfulness of colorblindness. I would never say “I don’t see color,” but I am guilty of trying to pretend like race matters less than it does. I am learning. I wasn’t able to see it. I also wasn’t listening to people, and in part, I wasn’t putting myself in the path of the people to whom I needed to listen. I really thought we’d fixed a lot of problems with Obama’s election, and the depressing election of Donald Trump helped me understand we definitely had not. Alexander’s book explains why colorblindness is harmful.

This book has been out for a while, so you’ve probably already read it. However, if you haven’t, you really should. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

five-stars

Review: U2 by U2, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr.

Review: U2 by U2, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr.U2 by U2 by U2, U2
Published by It Books ISBN: 006190385X
on December 1, 2009
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 460
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

U2 by U2 is the only definitive, official history of one of the most famous bands in the world, by the members of the band themselves. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen offer a unique, insightful account of everything fans want to know, from U2's birth 25 years ago and its evolution to become the biggest band in the world to their personal dramas and successes to the politics and emotions that drive them and their music. As cool, elegant, and exciting as the band itself, U2 by U2 is a must-have for any music fan's collection.

It’s pretty cool right now, at least from what I can tell online, to dislike U2. Anytime I read comments on any articles about them, it seems like people really can’t stand them—Bono, in particular, is referred to quite often by the sobriquet “wanker.” I can’t figure out why, nor does it square with my experience of going to two U2 concerts, both sold out. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and they were excellent performances. As far as I can tell, there are several reasons why people seem sour on U2: 1) they’re successful and have been for a really long time, 2) they are politically involved (though, to be fair, they always have been, so to be mad about it now seems disingenuous), and 3) they gave their album Songs of Innocence away for free to all iTunes users (I mean really, you don’t want it, just delete it). Maybe I’m missing some reasons, but these seem to be either the entire text or the subtext of all of the negative comments I have read.

I remember seeing their video for “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when it was on heavy rotation on MTV, soon after the single came out. I was intrigued because I knew this band was playing at Red Rocks, which is a natural amphitheater near Denver. I lived near Denver at the time and had been to Red Rocks, albeit not for a concert. It’s a really cool place, and as I lived in a “flyover” state (or that’s how it seemed to me at the time) and didn’t see my home reflected in media, this band playing at a venue I knew, a place I had been, intrigued me. It was a way of saying that my home existed apart from New York or California, which seemed to be all I ever heard about.

So I started paying attention.

And I noticed that I liked them, but this was before I was really buying my own music. When The Joshua Tree came out, I was fascinated. I loved their videos for that album. MTV was always on because I was in high school by then, and I loved that album. But I still didn’t own it yet because I was sort of running with the heavy metal kids, and I was sure it wouldn’t be considered cool. I know now how stupid that was, obviously, and I wish I could say I was the sort of person who never cared what people thought, but a judicious rejection of what others think is a relatively late development for me.

My French teacher used to play U2 music for us over the language lab headphones. I remember her saying “I don’t care if it’s your taste, it’s mine.” I loved those days. I probably never told her I appreciated it.

And then they released Achtung Baby, which was great, but they were acting kind of weird after that, and I wasn’t sure what had happened. As the 90’s rolled on, and a lot of what I heard them releasing didn’t appeal to me, I admit I didn’t pay as much attention, but my tape of The Joshua Tree was on heavy rotation during commutes in the late 1990’s. I was glad they sort of outgrew that “techno” phase and decided to play more to their strengths. To this day, I own all their entire albums except for Zooropa and Pop. Every once in a while, I will look on iTunes and see if I want the rest, and nope, still don’t. That’s not to say I don’t go back and give some songs a second chance. I have done that and discovered I actually like them. There are some gems on those albums, but there are also a lot of forgettable and plain, well, bad songs on them, too. I can appreciate they were trying to experiment, but I personally think they forgot what people liked about them.

The reason for this long introduction is to explain why I read this book. I was curious as to what made this band tick, how they came up with some of their ideas, how they managed to stay together so long (an apparently still seemed to like each other), and what exactly happened to them in the 90’s. The book is really written by music journalist Neil McCormick, whose interviewed the band and collected snippets from the band members’ own voices, starting at the very beginning and ending around 2006. If you’re thinking of reading, be prepared for the fact that there are a good twelve years not covered (to date), including three albums and the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree tour as well as the tribute album Ahk-toong Bay-bi Covered, which features the entire Achtung Baby album covered by artists like Jack White, Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, Depeche Mode, and Garbage. (I would have liked to have heard what the band thought of that tribute album.) In addition, their longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, has since passed away, and his voice contributes much of the story in this book. Their reflections on his passing, therefore, are also missing.

One big thing I learned is that the band should listen to Larry Mullen, Jr. more. He seems to have the most solid instincts about what will work, and it seems pretty clear to me that they didn’t listen to him as much as they should have in the 90’s.

If you’re a fan, you will learn pretty much whatever you’d like to know from this book. If you’re not a fan, I wouldn’t recommend this book. It won’t necessarily convert you if you’re among the group of people I mentioned at the beginning of my review. However, if you do love the band as much as I do, you will enjoy reading about how their albums came to be, and their reflections and recollections will make for an enjoyable excursion, especially if you were with them part of most of the way on their journey.

five-stars

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamaraI'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Gillian Flynn, Patton Oswalt
Published by Harper ISBN: 0062319787
on February 27, 2018
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

"You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark."

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called "the Golden State Killer." McNamara pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by McNamara's lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not the kind of book I would normally read, but I picked it up for several reasons: 1) my husband said it was good*; 2) this month’s Monthly Motif Challenge is “Crack the Case: Mysteries, True Crime, Who Dunnit’s,” so reading it offered and opportunity to keep my streak going with that challenge; 3) I was curious because the elusive Golden State Killer (as Michelle named him) has recently been found through DNA technology—40 years after he committed his first rapes; and 4) my husband and I went to Boston to see Michelle’s widower, Patton Oswalt, talk about this book and his wife’s work (this was before the killer had been apprehended), and his discussion of both the book and Michelle’s work intrigued me.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this book was Michelle’s own story—she explains where her fascination for crime came from and also describes her methodical detective work. Stephen King, who blurbs the book on the back cover put it this way: “What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara’s is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined.”

I have a hard time with the concept of dwelling too much in the darkest recesses of the human psyche. I have occasionally watched and read true crime (hard not to when you are married to Steve Huff*), but by and large, I find it hard to inhabit that world. I vividly recall having a difficult time coping with it when my husband was researching a horrific child killer named Joseph Edward Duncan about a decade ago. I knew too many details about his crimes that I didn’t want to know, and as much as I admire my husband’s writing and his brain, I found it hard to continue to read his writing in this area. I don’t think he blames me for that.

One thing I think Michelle does really well is walk a fine line between giving necessary information while avoiding lurid details. Not to say you won’t be creeped out if you read this, and fair warning: true crime writers inevitably have to share some of the details. I am really glad I read it knowing that the Golden State Killer had been caught. My husband was out of town this weekend while I was reading the book, and I was having trouble sleeping a couple of nights in a row after we went to a U2 concert—I guess I was keyed up still—and the cat made a noise, and I nearly jumped out of my skin before remembering the guy was in jail and I live on the third floor anyway. He’s not likely to be creeping in my window. I could relate to Michelle’s story of nearly braining her husband with a lamp when he startled her awake one night. She said, and this line stood out to me, “There is a permanent scream lodged in my throat.” That sentence fascinates me because even after reading the book and understanding how she was really interested in getting to the bottom of mysteries, it is terrifying work. I can’t understand engaging in work that puts you in that position when you don’t have to be. My husband and I were talking about it, and he tried to explain it, and I guess it’s never something I will understand.

I was also fascinated to learn how much Michelle was able to coax law enforcement to share with her. I told my husband that if I were a cop, I am not too sure I’d want to work with any armchair detectives, but he says he thinks it depends on the cop, and also, many are grateful for any help they can get on cold cases and recognize that sometimes, people outside the situation connect dots that law enforcement doesn’t. For instance, my husband was one of the first people to find suspects’ social media accounts at a time when it seemed like law enforcement didn’t know how to do it.

Michelle accurately guessed that the Golden State Killer would eventually be found using DNA. With 12 (possibly 13) murders and over 50 rapes, the GSK left behind a lot of DNA, and he had some rare genetic markers in his profile. Michelle also posits in the book that he may have been in the Air Force (he had been in the Navy) and possibly even a police officer. He was (the frickin’ creep—in Auburn, CA, a suburb of Sacramento). He was actually fired as a police officer after shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer. Michelle was also correct that the GSK was also the criminal known as the Visalia Ransacker, who broke into homes in Visalia, CA and basically moved things around, stole things, and probably killed Claude Snelling, who caught the Ransacker attempting to rape his daughter. Michelle also guessed that he lived pretty close to where he was eventually found: Citrus Heights, CA. Most chillingly, Michelle accurately guessed the way it would go down.

You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk…

The doorbell rings.

No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.

This is how it ends for you.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark, you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

Reports say that the Golden State Killer was shocked when he was finally caught. I believe the timing of the book’s release and the GSK’s capture in the same year—within months—is no coincidence. Michelle’s writing about the case brought renewed attention to unmasking criminal behind the decades-old cold cases. For all I know, Michelle shared some of her ideas with law enforcement, who then acted upon them. She may be the real-life Sherlock Holmes, solving the mystery and allowing Lestrade and Scotland Yard to take the credit. Obviously, this is just conjecture on my part, and the folks in a position to say probably never will. That’s way it works.

Michelle died in her sleep on April 21, 2016. She hadn’t finished this book yet when she passed away, but her husband was determined that it be finished. It appeared in print a scant few months before the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, was finally unmasked. His DNA matched that of a distant cousin who uploaded DNA to GEDMatch, and a forensic genealogist pieced together his family tree. To be sure they had the right guy, police swabbed DeAngelo’s car door handle while he shopped in a Hobby Lobby store and swabbed a tissue from his trash to confirm the match. DNA doesn’t lie. It’s potentially problematic from a fourth amendment point of view that we can now conduct these kinds of investigations, but I can’t deny I feel good they caught this particular guy. It’s chilling to think he was probably within a decade or so of getting away with a rape and murder spree that’s truly horrifying. I am glad his surviving victims will have that closure and that he will have to pay in some measure for the crimes he has committed.

This book might interest other folks, like me, who are not invested in true crime, but folks who like reading about true crime will probably really like this book. Michelle is a good writer in an oeuvre in which good writing is regrettably rare. You can still read her blog, True Crime Diary. You can hear Michelle and Steve talking true crime here if you like. You can read a guest post he wrote for Michelle’s blog here, or this one about JonBenet Ramsey.

*Full disclosure: my husband writes often about true crime and knew this book’s author, Michelle McNamara. They never met in person, but I know they frequently corresponded and that they read each other’s work. That said, I never knew her or spoke with her. However, I couldn’t stop myself from using her first name throughout this review, something I avoid doing when I write about authors, because that’s who she is around this house—just Michelle.

 

four-stars

Review: My Bread, Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste

Review: My Bread, Jim Lahey with Rick FlasteMy Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method by Jim Lahey, Rick Flaste
ISBN: 0393066304
on October 5th 2009
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

When he wrote about Jim Lahey’s bread in the New York Times, Mark Bittman's excitement was palpable: "The loaf is incredible, a fine-bakery quality, European-style boule that is produced more easily than by any other technique I’ve used, and it will blow your mind." Here, thanks to Jim Lahey, New York’s premier baker, is a way to make bread at home that doesn't rely on a fancy bread machine or complicated kneading techniques. Witnessing the excitement that Bittman's initial piece unleashed worldwide among bakers experienced and beginner alike, Jim grew convinced that home cooks were eager for a no-fuss way to make bread, and so now, in this eagerly anticipated collection of recipes, Jim shares his one-of-a-kind method for baking rustic, deep-flavored bread in your own oven.

The secret to Jim Lahey’s bread is slow-rise fermentation. As Jim shows in My Bread, with step-by-step instructions followed by step-by-step pictures, the amount of labor you put in amounts to 5 minutes: mix water, flour, yeast, and salt, and then let time work its magic—no kneading necessary. Wait 12 to 18 hours for the bread to rise, developing structure and flavor; then, after another short rise, briefly bake the bread in a covered cast-iron pot.

The process couldn’t be more simple, or the results more inspiring. My Bread devotes chapters to Jim's variations on the basic loaf, including an olive loaf, pecorino cheese bread, pancetta rolls, the classic Italian baguette (stirato), and the stunning bread stick studded with tomatoes, olives, or garlic (stecca). He gets even more creative with loaves like Peanut Butter and Jelly Bread, others that use juice instead of water, and his Irish Brown Bread, which calls for Guinness stout. For any leftover loaves, Jim includes what to do with old bread (try bread soup or a chocolate torte) and how to make truly special sandwiches.

And no book by Jim Lahey would be complete without his Sullivan Street Bakery signature, pizza Bianca—light, crispy flatbread with olive oil and rosemary that Jim has made even better than that of Italy’s finest bakeries. Other pizza recipes, like a pomodoro (tomato), only require you to spread the risen dough across a baking sheet and add toppings before baking.

Here—finally—Jim Lahey gives us a cookbook that enables us to fit quality bread into our lives at home.

I ordered Jim Lahey’s first book My Bread after finishing his third, The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook (his second is My Pizza, which I guess I’ll need to read!). Lahey’s recipe for a perfect no-knead crusty loaf of bread apparently took the world by storm some time back, but I missed it. I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up had The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook not crossed my radar. I have long been too intimidated to make bread, primarily because I saw it as a fussy food: you had to knead it just so, but don’t handle it too much. You had to set it out to rise. I love bread, but it seemed like a lot of hassle. In actuality, the biggest hassle is the amount of time. Jim Lahey’s bread needs to rise pretty much overnight, so it’s a good idea to mix the dough before you go to bed on a weekend. The next day, you can shape the dough and allow it to rise again, and you will have a nice loaf of bread for weekend supper.

Unlike The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, the recipes in this book call for yeast rather than the stiff sourdough starter Jim Lahey calls biga. There is not a huge difference in flavor between the bread made with yeast versus the bread made with biga, but I think I actually prefer the bread made with biga. It seemed to me like the “holes” in the loaf were bigger. However, following the baking directions as stated in The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook yielded a very dark loaf for me with the crust almost burned. Of course, I didn’t use parchment for that loaf as I did the yeast loaf I made using Lahey’s recipe in My Bread, and I think perhaps the fact that I used oil may have contributed to the issue I had. Still, it might be worth following the baking directions for the yeast loaf next time I try to bake the bread with biga.

Here is the loaf I made today using Lahey’s recipe for basic no-knead bread on pp. 50-52 of the book:

The crust turned out perfectly, and I think the parchment paper was the trick there. I noticed that I could hear it crackling as it cooled, but it didn’t “sing” like the biga loaf.

Both loaves are delicious. I think the idea of using a natural yeast I created has some appeal. Lahey talks about trying to do things the old-fashioned way, such as baking in fire ovens, and I understand that feeling. It is a way of connecting to the past, to the work our ancestors did with their hands. I felt the same way making my own soap.

I haven’t tried the other recipes, but the book is an entertaining read, and the basic bread recipe is one I can see returning to over and over again.

Foodies Read ChallengeI hadn’t planned on reading quite so many cookbooks for this challenge. I envisioned reading more food histories, which also interest me. Still, I think it says something about the entertaining readability of the cookbooks I’ve read that I was able to read them cover to cover and see the personality of the author shine through.

I also discovered this book was a Gourmet Cookbook Club selection, which had me Googling said book club. It looks like after Epicurious acquired Gourmet, they scrubbed all the book club material from the site, but their list is still out there.

five-stars

Review: The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, Jim Lahey with Maya Joseph

Review: The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, Jim Lahey with Maya JosephThe Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook by Jim Lahey, Maya Joseph, Squire Fox
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393247287
on November 7th 2017
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 240
Format: Hardcover
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four-half-stars

Founded in 1994, Sullivan Street Bakery is renowned for its outstanding bread, which graces the tables of New York’s most celebrated restaurants. The bread at Sullivan Street Bakery, crackling brown on the outside and light and aromatic on the inside, is inspired by the dark, crusty loaves that James Beard Award-winning baker Jim Lahey discovered in Rome.

Jim builds on the revolutionary no-knead recipe he developed for his first book, My Bread, to outline his no-fuss system for making sourdough at home. Applying his Italian-inspired method to his repertoire of pizzas, pastries, egg dishes, and café classics, The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook delivers the flavors of a bakery Ruth Reichl once called "a church of bread."

I think I ordered this book after reading about it on some sort of best-of-2017 cookbooks list. I am trying my hand at baking bread, and I really wanted to step up the challenge by trying sourdough baking. Back in December, I made my own sourdough starter using this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Jim Lahey includes his own starter recipe in The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook. I followed Lahey’s instructions to make my starter into biga, the stiff starter Lahey uses in many of his recipes. After I made my biga, I tucked it away in the refrigerator because I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to experiment with it. Lahey says that unlike regular starter, biga doesn’t need to be “fed” and will keep pretty much as long as you want it in the refrigerator.

I don’t know if it matters whether or not your biga is brought to room temperature after it’s been refrigerated, but I didn’t bother with it when I decided to try out the recipe for pane bianco, Lahey’s recipe for a no-knead sourdough bread. Until I used this recipe, the only sourdough bread I’d made was King Arthur’s sort of cheater recipe for “rustic” sourdough bread. I call it a cheater recipe because it uses yeast and doesn’t rely strictly on the sourdough starter to rise, which makes it good for beginners. It tastes fine, but I wasn’t happy with it. In looking through the recipes in Lahey’s book, I settled on the pane bianco because it seemed the least fiddly (there are a lot of very fiddly recipes in this book). Word of caution: it is extremely time-consuming—not in the amount of work you need to do, but in wait time.

Lahey’s instructions said that after combining the water and biga with the flour and salt the recipe calls for, you might need to wait anywhere from eight to eighteen hours for the bread to double in size. 😯 I decided to mix the dough the night before I would bake it so it could do its thing overnight. When I woke up, I checked the bread, and it seemed pretty much ready to go, so I followed Lahey’s instructions for shaping it and then letting it rise again. I have an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, and the instructions say not to heat it empty, but Lahey’s instructions say to preheat the Dutch oven. What to do? I didn’t want to risk damaging my Dutch oven, so I did some searching online and discovered I could put the bread into the Dutch oven, turn the oven on, and put the Dutch oven with the bread inside in the oven, which would serve basically the same function as preheating it while allowing the dough to finish its final rise. According to King Arthur’s blog, if you do this, you can just bake the bread according to its directions. I didn’t find this to be true. My crust came out quite a bit darker than I wanted it, as Lahey’s instructions say to bake the bread for 40 minutes. Next time, I will bake it for less time and see if that works better. The bread still turned out great.

My first loaf of “real” sourdough bread

I think given the fact that it was my first one, it really turned out better than expected. I forgot to slash the bread, which you are supposed to do with sourdough, but it didn’t seem to hurt anything.

I was really thrilled to see all the pockets of air. It truly tasted like one of those artisan loaves of bread you get at a bakery. I was ridiculously proud of being able to make a loaf of sourdough bread completely from scratch, using my very own biga created with my own starter. I have been intimidated by bread for a long time, and I credit buying Bread Toast Crumbs with being able to get over my fear of baking bread.

Lahey doesn’t like the tangy sourdough, so he says you don’t really taste that sourdough flavor in his recipes, and that was true of the bread I made. Keeping in mind this is the only recipe I have tried, I still recommend this book for people looking to step up their baking game. The recipes will offer a nice challenge for intermediate or more advanced bakers. It’s not a book for beginners, and be forewarned that most of the recipes will take time. We live in a busy world, and baking bread the old-fashioned way that Lahey uses takes a long time. Lahey also uses a kitchen scale and gives most of his instructions in grams. He gives you the volume measures as well but cautions that grams are better and more precise (and he’s right about that—I learned that lesson making soap). Bread is particularly picky and seems to work much better if you use a scale rather than trying to use measuring cups. It also matters if you are baking in the summer or winter, and you have to adjust. Thankfully, Lahey has good advice for how to adjust for seasonal temperature variances.

I know it’s sort of weird to read a recipe book all the way through, but Lahey’s personality and passion for baking come through, and even the recipes were entertaining to read. I used some of the techniques he describes in other recipes. For example, I found this great recipe for Detroit-style pizza with a homemade crust. After reading about how Lahey makes pizza dough look dimpled by “docking,” or pressing his fingers into the dough, I tried it with my pizza dough, and I achieved the same effect—”a sublime texture—pliant, soft, and bubbly” (119). For anyone curious about the pizza recipe, I make the pizza as is except I omit the cheddar cheese, which seems wrong on pizza to me, and use more mozzarella. I use both shredded mozzarella and fresh mozzarella cut into cubes. The results are pretty awesome.

There are a lot of recipes in the book I’m not sure I’d ever try (that panettone seems incredibly daunting for something I’m not even sure I’d like), but the bread recipes look good, the breakfasts look tasty, and the pizza crust is definitely on my to-d0 list.

I ordered Lahey’s first book My Bread this afternoon because I liked this book so much. I kind of want to visit his bakery if I get a chance to go to New York.

Foodies Read Challenge

four-half-stars

Review: Stonewall, Martin Duberman

Review: Stonewall, Martin DubermanStonewall by Martin Duberman
ISBN: 0525936025
on May 1st 1993
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

On June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, was raided. But instead of the routine compliance expected by the police, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life. This book tells the story of what happened at Stonewall, recreating those nights in detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Their stories combine into a portrait of the repression that led up to the riots, which culminates when they triumphantly participate in the first gay rights march of 1970.

I wanted to read this book after watching the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha’s longtime friend and a fellow Stonewall veteran, is one of the six gay rights pioneers profiled in Stonewall, alongside Jim Fouratt, Yvonne Flowers, Karla Jay, Craig Rodwell, and Foster Gunnison, Jr. While not all six were present at Stonewall the night of June 28, 1969, each contributed in their way to the burgeoning Gay Rights Movement in the wake of Stonewall. The book is structured as a profile of each of these six people’s lives leading up to Stonewall, their participation (if any) in the events at Stonewall, and their lives post-Stonewall.

If you watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, it’s difficult not to become fascinated by Sylvia Rivera. As a trans woman of color, she landed on the streets of New York at the age of eleven and had a difficult life, often homeless and combatting drug and alcohol problems along with the dangers of living on the street and hustling for money. And yet, her commitment to the Gay Rights Movement is real and heartfelt. Jim Fouratt has claimed that Sylvia was not at Stonewall the first night, but other participants (including Sylvia herself) claim she was. Some have even claimed that Sylvia threw the first bottle or Molotov cocktail, though Sylvia herself denies these accounts. I imagine the scene was chaotic enough that it’s hard to tell who exactly did what and where they were. In any case, Sylvia threw herself into the work of the Gay Rights Movement, founding STAR House (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Marsha. STAR House took in transgender kids, offering them food and shelter. Sylvia advocated for the poor and marginalized in society. At the time of her death, she was directing a food pantry at her church.

Transgender people have been sidelined in the Gay Rights Movement. In 1973, Sylvia left the movement after leaders in the movement attempted to silence her at the annual celebration of gay pride that grew out of Stonewall and has become the annual Pride Parade.

I learned a great deal from this book. I didn’t know anything at all about the Mattachine Society, and none of the figures, aside from Sylvia Rivera, was familiar to me before reading the book. Jim Fouratt was not only an early leader of the Gay Liberation Front but also a friend of Abbie Hoffman’s and one of the Yippies. He later became a music journalist. Karla Jay is a writer and college professor emerita. Craig Rodwell founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (which finally closed its doors in 2009, unable to compete (like so many bookstores) with online outfits. Two figures who are still somewhat enigmatic to me are Foster Gunnison and Yvonne Flowers. Gunnison was a founding member of NACHO (North American Conference of Homophile Organizations) and died shortly after Stonewall was published. He was more conservative than the others profiled and wasn’t involved in Stonewall, though (uncharacteristically for him) approved of what happened there. Yvonne Flowers participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day parade (which I think later became the annual Pride Parade) and was friends with Audre Lorde. Neither she nor Gunnison has a Wikipedia entry, and I couldn’t find much available information without doing some real digging online, though it’s there. I also didn’t realize how difficult it was for lesbians and transgender individuals to be involved in the early movement. I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise, but one might think if you are marginalized in some way yourself, it makes you more open to empathy for other marginalized groups. Not so much. White males dominated the early movement to the extent that many women and transgender people felt shut out.

Stonewall was published in 1993, and the information may be quite dated. Jim Fouratt and Harry Beard, a Stonewall waiter, both claimed that the catalyst for the uprising came when a lesbian dressed in men’s clothing was cuffed, complained the handcuffs were too tight and was then hit with a nightstick. Craig Rodwell insisted that “There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group—of mass—anger” (197). Duberman quotes collective eyewitnesses who “skeptically ask why, if [the lesbian] did exist, she has never stepped forward to claim the credit” (197). However, Stormé DeLarverie has, in fact, claimed to be that person, and several other witnesses have supported her claim. I’m not sure when DeLarverie identified herself, but Duberman didn’t identify her at all in the book, so it stands to reason he didn’t know about her claims when he wrote the book.

I liked the structure of following the six individuals, and the six chosen represent a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, so it’s nice to see that balance. As much as I appreciate the balance of perspectives, it comes at the cost of focusing on individuals who were not involved at Stonewall itself, though it’s hard to deny their importance in the Gay Rights Movement.

The February motif for the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge is to read a book with one word in the title, which is one of the reasons I read Stonewall this month. I obtained this book from my local library.

four-stars

Review: Salt Fat Acid Heat, Samin Nosrat

Review: Salt Fat Acid Heat, Samin NosratSalt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat, Wendy MacNaughton
Published by Simon & Schuster ISBN: 1476753830
on April 25th 2017
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Goodreads
five-stars

A visionary new master class in cooking that distills decades of professional experience into just four simple elements, from the woman declared “America’s next great cooking teacher” by Alice Waters.

In the tradition of The Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything comes Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, an ambitious new approach to cooking by a major new culinary voice. Chef and writer Samin Nosrat has taught everyone from professional chefs to middle school kids to author Michael Pollan to cook using her revolutionary, yet simple, philosophy. Master the use of just four elements—Salt, which enhances flavor; Fat, which delivers flavor and generates texture; Acid, which balances flavor; and Heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food—and anything you cook will be delicious. By explaining the hows and whys of good cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will teach and inspire a new generation of cooks how to confidently make better decisions in the kitchen and cook delicious meals with any ingredients, anywhere, at any time.

Echoing Samin’s own journey from culinary novice to award-winning chef, Salt, Fat Acid, Heat immediately bridges the gap between home and professional kitchens. With charming narrative, illustrated walkthroughs, and a lighthearted approach to kitchen science, Samin demystifies the four elements of good cooking for everyone. Refer to the canon of 100 essential recipes—and dozens of variations—to put the lessons into practice and make bright, balanced vinaigrettes, perfectly caramelized roast vegetables, tender braised meats, and light, flaky pastry doughs.

Featuring 150 illustrations and infographics that reveal an atlas to the world of flavor by renowned illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will be your compass in the kitchen. Destined to be a classic, it just might be the last cookbook you’ll ever need.

With a foreword by Michael Pollan.

I picked up this cookbook after hearing about it on NPR during a segment with Corby Kummer about his Atlantic article featuring the best cookbooks of 2017. It might be one of the few cookbooks that I read cover-to-cover because even more than recipes suggesting what to cook, Samin Nosrat’s book teaches you how to cook. Her contention is that if you learn how to work with salt, fat, acid, and heat, you can cook anything. I haven’t tried many of the recipes the book yet, but I have tried her techniques, and honestly, I only wish I’d had this book many years ago. Where has this book been all my life?

One caveat for people who buy cookbooks for pretty pictures of food. This book doesn’t have any photographs—just Wendy McNaughton’s artwork. When asked why no photographs, author Samin Nosrat said:

This book and this message is about teaching you to be loose in the kitchen. And I didn’t want you to feel bound to my one image of a perfect dish in a perfect moment and feel like that was what you had to make. So I didn’t want you to feel like you had to live up to my version of perfection.

I have to admit that the perfect photos on food blogs and cookbooks can sometimes be intimidating. Even though what I make might taste good, it rarely matches the photographs for aesthetic appeal, so Nosrat’s reasoning makes sense to me.

This book is perfect for beginning cooks or even more experienced cooks who want to expand their understanding of how cooking works. It’s also great for cooks who need a bit more confidence.

My biggest takeaway from the book is to taste as I’m cooking. I know that seems pretty obvious, but tasting as you cook is the best way to know if you are balancing flavors properly. Tiny little case in point: I made macaroni and cheese for dinner tonight (the real stuff, not the box kind). I thought maybe my macaroni wasn’t done, but I wasn’t sure, so I scooped a noodle out of the pot and tasted it. Nope, done. Just a small example. I’ve also tried her tips for macerating shallots for salad and used her technique for dicing onions. I had my own technique for dicing onions, but hers works better. These sorts of techniques are hard to come by in most cookbooks, which by and large assume a level of knowledge that not all cooks have.

Nosrat also has a likable and charming voice that most cookbooks lack. For example, here is part of her instruction for fixing a broken mayonnaise emulsion:

Using your oily, eggy whisk, start whisking the hot water maniacally, until it starts to foam. Then, treating the broken mayonnaise as if it were oil, add it drop by drop, continuing to whisk with the urgency of a swimmer escaping a shark. (84)

This is one cookbook I would recommend to just about anyone as I think there is something for everyone in its pages.

five-stars

Review: The Cooking Gene, Michael Twitty

Review: The Cooking Gene, Michael TwittyThe Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
Published by Amistad ISBN: 0062379291
on August 1st 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 464
Format: E-Book
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five-stars

A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.

Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.

From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors’ survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia.

As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together.

I first heard about The Cooking Gene on the Gastropod podcast some months back. I have embedded the episode below. Gastropod is an interesting podcast that focuses on food and science (and sometimes history).

I preordered Twitty’s book for my Kindle app, but I didn’t start reading it in earnest until December. It’s an unusual combination of genealogy research, personal memoir, and food history. Twitty has been able to travel to Africa since he finished the book—something I know from following him on Twitter. The pages of this book make clear how much Twitty honors his ancestors and the food and folkways they developed as slaves in the American South. Twitty re-enacts historical cooking at Colonial Williamsburg and came to the national forefront when he offered Paula Deen a chance at redemption through cooking a meal together with him and his subsequent Southern Discomfort Tour. What a shame Ms. Deen ignored his invitation. She would have learned something from him, judging by this book.

I recognized many of the folkways and foodways in my own family in the pages of this book, which is no surprise given my family on my mother’s side is Southern and migrated from Virginia through the South to Texas by the 2oth century. One image particularly resonated with me:

I grew up with a grandmother who would make cornbread several times a week and take any that was left over the next day, crumble it into a glass of buttermilk, and eat it out with a spoon. The glass streaked with lines of buttermilk and crumbs grossed me out. But when I asked my grandmother why she did it that way, she replied, without explanation, “At least I didn’t have to eat it from a trough” (199).

As Twitty later explains, enslaved children ate a cornmeal mush out of a trough at midday. The image of Twitty’s grandmother at the kitchen table eating cornbread and buttermilk reminded me of my own image of my grandmother doing the same thing. My reaction when I was a child was similar to Twitty’s. I don’t think I asked her why she ate it that way, but I’m confident it had been passed down in her family, probably originating from slaves her family owned.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about American history, particularly Southern history and African-American history, as well as anyone interested in the history of food in America. Twitty says late in the book that “Culinary justice is the idea that people should be recognized for the gastronomic contributions and have a right to their inherent value, including the opportunity to derive empowerment from them” (409).

Finishing this book was a great way to start the year and to kick off my participation in the Foodies Read Challenge and the Monthly Motif Challenge, though truthfully, Michael Twitty’s family history stories are firmly bonded with my own in that my family was on the other side of the institution of slavery. The stories of white and black Southerners are inextricably linked. He even mentioned a friend named Tambra Raye Stevenson, a nutritionist from Washington DC, whose “‘furthest back person’ was a woman in the white family named ‘Mammy,” Henrietta Burkhalter, born a slave in Baltimore. Sold as a young girl to the Burkhalter family in Georgia, ‘Mammy’ trekked with the white family and her sons to Mississippi, then Texas, and finally rested her soul in McIntosh County, Oklahoma” (277). The Burkhalters are my cousins. My great-great-grandfather’s sister married into the family, and I have been to several family reunions with the Burkhalter bunch in Georgia, and yes, some of them went west to Texas, as did their Cunningham kin. What a small world. The goal of this month’s “motif” is to diversify my reading through reading an author of a “race, religion, or sexual orientation” than mine. Michael Twitty is all three as a black, Jewish, gay man, but he feels like family to me. And given his history, it’s entirely possible that he is a cousin. Be sure to check out his blog in addition to this book.

five-stars

Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson

Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. JohnsonSelected Letters by Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson
Published by Belknap Press ISBN: 0674250702
on March 15th 1986
Genres: Nonfiction
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five-stars

When the complete Letters of Emily Dickinson appeared in three volumes in 1958, Robert Kirsch welcomed them in the Los Angeles Times, saying "The missives offer access to the mind and heart of one of America's most intriguing literary personalities." This one-volume selection is at last available in paper-back. It provides crucial texts for the appreciation of America literature, women's experience in the nineteenth century, and literature in general.

When I studied the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson this summer in Amherst, this collection of Emily Dickinson’s letters was one of my required reads. I didn’t finish it before the course began, so I decided it pick it up again to finish before the year closed. Consider it a way to pick up a few loose threads.

As Dickinson says in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her mentor and friend as well as early editor, “What a Hazard a Letter is!” While this volume is not a comprehensive collection of Dickinson’s letters, it does include a broad selection dating from Dickinson’s preteen years to her final letter to her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross right before she died. Many of her letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson as well as the mysterious “Master” are included. Emily Dickinson seems to be the kind of person about whom the more one learns, the more enigmatical she becomes. Her writing is often a riddle. I wonder what her correspondents made of her. She seems to have taken a great deal of care to write to loved ones, particularly when they were grieving, and toward the end of her life, her letters paint the picture of someone buffeted from too many losses, beginning with the loss of her father in 1874 to that of Helen Hunt Jackson, a friend and admirer of Dickinson’s who insisted that Dickinson publish her work:

You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy. (Letter 444a)

Dickinson writes beautiful letters, which should surprise no one familiar with her poetry, but it’s interesting that her letters are in some ways as impenetrable as her poetry can be. One that makes me scratch my head, to her sister-in-law (and some say her lover) Susan Gilbert Dickinson, includes the line, “Could I make you and Austin [Dickinson’s brother]—proud—sometime—a great way off—’twould give me taller feet—” (Letter 238). I mean, I think I know what she means by “taller feet,” but the expression is so odd that I am not sure.

Her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she wrote to out of the blue after he wrote an article of advice for writers for The Atlantic Monthly, includes similarly unusual diction:

Mr Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

If I make the mistake—that you dared to tell me—would give me sincerer honor—toward you—

I enclose my name—asking you, if you please—Sir—to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me—it is needless to ask—since Honor is it’s [sic] own pawn— (Letter 260)

Dickinson sent that letter to Higginson while he lived in Worcester, MA, probably less than two miles from where I am sitting right now as I write this. Imagine receiving this letter from nowhere!

Dickinson could have chosen many words, but she asked if her “Verse is alive” (emphasis mine). Her second sentence is just a bold lie: she has plenty of people that she can and has asked to read her poetry and give her their opinions. She continues to play with the notion of “living” poetry through the wordplay of “breathed” and “quick” in the next sentence. Is she warning him not to publish her work in the final line? In any case, he didn’t know what he was looking at because he apparently told her she was not ready for publication. Her reply includes the deft line, “Thank you for the surgery—it was not so painful as I supposed” (Letter 261). She had to have been disappointed that he didn’t encourage her, but if so, she doesn’t betray it to anyone in her letters, and she didn’t seek to publish her work much in her lifetime, despite Helen Hunt Jackson’s encouragement.

In any case, it’s to Higginson’s credit that he recognized her genius enough before he died to edit several volumes of her poetry along with her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd. I do wish this collection had included Dickinson’s final letter to Higginson, from early May 1886 (the month she died):

Deity—does He live now?

My friend—does he breathe? (Letter 1045)

One of my instructors at the Emily Dickinson course suggests there is a circle closed with this final letter to Higginson. In her first letter to Higginson, she asks if her poetry is alive, if it breathes. Her final letter asks very similar questions. She had heard Higginson was sick and had to cancel a lecture he planned to give. The words are not accidental, not when you’re Emily Dickinson.

Perhaps most beautiful, and I dare you not to cry when you read it after reading this collection of letters, is the final letter Dickinson ever wrote. It is addressed to her Norcross cousins and reads simply:

Little Cousins,

Called back.

Emily (Letter 1046)

If you enjoy Dickinson’s poems, you will certainly delight in her letters.

I happen to have two copies of this collection, and it is a little bit hard to find nowadays. I’m not sure if it’s out of print, or what, but Amazon only sells it via third-party sellers. Stay tuned for a giveaway post since I do not need two copies.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This is probably the last book I’ll finish for the Backlist Reader Challenge, which means I fell pretty far short of finishing the challenge. However, this book has been on my TBR list since I first visited Emily Dickinson’s house.

five-stars