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: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, narr. Kenneth Branagh

Review: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, narr. Kenneth BranaghMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Narrator: Kenneth Branagh
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0062847929
on October 24th 2017
Format: Audio
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five-stars

A new recording of the most widely read mystery of all time, performed by Kenneth Branagh.

Now a major motion picture from Twentieth Century Fox, releasing November 10, 2017 and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

"The murderer is with us - on the train now..."

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.

My husband and I decided to listen to this on audio as we cook dinner—listening to books while we cook has become a habit. I hadn’t read this one yet. In fact, I haven’t read anything else by Agatha Christie except And Then There Were None. I had the advantage of not having the mystery spoiled for me, so I will not spoil it for you, either (just in case). However, I will say it was quite a satisfying murder mystery, and I was guessing up until the end.

This was my first Hercule Poirot book, and I haven’t really watched any movies or television featuring the character, either. He definitely owes something of a debt to Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and I liked him. Kenneth Branagh is an excellent narrator. He does accents really well, which is something I noted when listening to his reading of Heart of Darkness. He even does a really good American accent. His reading of Mrs. Hubbard was fantastic.

I know the reason he read this book is that it’s a movie tie-in for the film he directed and starred in last year. I might want to watch it. It has a stellar cast, though reviews on IMDb are not awesome.

If you haven’t read this book, treat yourself to this audio version. You won’t be disappointed. Kenneth Branagh is a great reader.

This book counts towards the British Books Challenge, as Agatha Christie is a British writer, though the book is set in modern-day Croatia (Yugoslavia at the time). Because of its setting, I’m also counting it for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. I’m counting it as my selection for a classic crime story for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

five-stars

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret AtwoodAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published by Doubleday Nan A. Talese ISBN: 0385475713
on November 2, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 468
Format: Audio
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five-stars

From the number one New York Times best-selling author of The Handmaid's Tale

Soon to be a Netflix Original series, Alias Grace takes listeners into the life of one of the most notorious women of the 19th century.

It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?

Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

The miniseries Alias Grace is a Halfire Entertainment Production made for CBC and Netflix.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I like to listen to audiobooks while we cook dinner, and I have picked most of them. We made a deal that I would pick one more, and I was supposed to surprise him and pick whatever I wanted, and then it would be his turn. We had tried to listen to Lincoln in the Bardo, but I just couldn’t follow the story in audio. That was the last book my husband picked, I think. I thought long and hard about which book to pick. I almost picked The Handmaid’s Tale because I don’t think he’s read it, but I have read it, and I had wanted to read Alias Grace. I thought maybe my husband would like it because it is based on a true crime story, and he is something of a true crime aficionado.

Both of us liked the novel quite a lot. I think we are planning to watch the Netflix series, too. My husband remarked several times about what an excellent writer Margaret Atwood is. I am not sure if we were meant to think about Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was also based on a true crime. To my way of thinking, Alias Grace has more than a healthy dose of Naturalism as well. It explores themes of mental health, treatment of women, sexuality, and gender as well as social issues involving Irish immigrants. Grace emerges as a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it’s difficult to know who she really is, especially by the end. Atwood weaves the narrative together well through the frame device of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American interested in mental health issues, who visits Grace to learn more about her story and the infamous murders that resulted in her imprisonment as a teenage girl.

Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the Netflix adaptation of the novel, and she does a worthy job with the narration of this novel as well. This one is definitely worth a listen.

five-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Caught Up

Dancing Men Cipher
AM HERE ABE SLANEY Cipher by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m all caught up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” over the last week.

“The Abbey Grange” involves one of the sharper murder schemes in the series. When Sir Eustace Brackenstall turns up dead, no one much laments, and Inspector Hopkins thinks the notorious Randall Gang might be behind it. But Holmes, as usual, notices a few things that everyone else has missed and puts the pieces together.

In “The Devil’s Foot” Watson thinks he and Holmes are in for some rest and relaxation in Cornwall, but instead find themselves confronting a grisly scene. Three members of the Tregennis family are found sitting around their table. One of them is dead, and the other two are mad. What could have caused it? Obviously not the devil, but that’s how it looks… at first.

In “The Dancing Men,” probably one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes with a mystery: several notes with stick figure men. Surely, they are only childish drawings… except they horrify his wife, who has expressly forbidden Cubitt from asking about her past. Holmes solves the cipher to determine why Mrs. Cubitt feels threatened, but he arrives too late to save his client from the menace behind the coded messages.

In “The Retired Colourman” Josiah Amberley hires Holmes to investigate his wife’s disappearance. He accuses his wife of eloping with a friend of his and making off with a great deal of money in cash and securities. Holmes naturally smells a rat and enlists Watson to dupe Amberley so that he can do some investigating on his own.

BBC’s Sherlock alludes to “The Dancing Men” in two episodes. Ciphers feature in “The Blind Banker,” and the “AM HERE ABE SLANEY” cipher appears on a chalkboard at the end of “The Final Problem” episode. I didn’t notice any other references to these other stories in the series.

“The Abbey Grange”  Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Devil’s Foot” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Dancing Men” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Retired Colourman” Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 44th, 45th, 46th, and 47th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Thor Bridge.”

Three Sherlock Holmes Stories

The Missing Three-Quarters
Illustration for “The Missing Three-Quarters” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m slowly catching up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read three stories today: “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” and “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter.” I’m now caught up to where I should have been as of mid-December. I need to read four more stories to catch totally up.

Sherlock’s brother Mycroft shows up in “The Bruce-Partington Plans” to enlist Sherlock’s help in a matter of great importance to the government: plans for a submarine have been stolen, and one of the men who might have done it has been found dead in the subway.

“The Veiled Lodger” is a story about a former circus worker who wants to unburden her soul and tell her story to Sherlock Holmes before she dies.

In “The Missing Three-Quarters” Sherlock is on the case to find a missing football star.

Of the three stories I read today, my favorite was easily “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” Mycroft is a great character. The atmosphere in the story also plays a brilliant role: London is so foggy in this story that just about any crime might be committed. Parts of this story find their way into the BBC Sherlock episode “The Great Game”: Andrew West’s name is similar to murder victim Arthur Cadogan West in the story, and their deaths are similar; John Watson’s blog post also refers to the Bruce-Partington Plans. “The Veiled Lodger” was kind of weird and forgettable. There was no real mystery to it. “The Missing Three-Quarter” was a little better than “The Veiled Lodger,” but only because there was at least a little mystery to solve—although it does have some choice Sherlock Holmes-style sarcasm. I don’t think any parts of “The Veiled Lodger” or “The Missing Three-Quarter” have found their way into BBC’s Sherlock.

“The Bruce-Partington Plans” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Veiled Lodger” Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
“The Missing Three-Quarter” Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 41st, 42nd, and 43rd stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Abbey Grange.” I am about four stories behind.

 

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

Review: The Fire This Time, Ed. Jesmyn Ward

Review: The Fire This Time, Ed. Jesmyn WardThe Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race by Jesmyn Ward
Published by Scribner ISBN: 1501126350
on June 20th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 240
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five-stars

A surprise New York Times bestseller, these groundbreaking essays and poems about race—collected by National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward and written by the most important voices of her generation—are “thoughtful, searing, and at times, hopeful. The Fire This Time is vivid proof that words are important, because of their power to both cleanse and to clarify” (USA TODAY).

In this bestselling, widely lauded collection, Jesmyn Ward gathers our most original thinkers and writers to speak on contemporary racism and race, including Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, and Honoree Jeffers. “An absolutely indispensable anthology” (Booklist, starred review), The Fire This Time shines a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestles with our current predicament, and imagines a better future.

Envisioned as a response to The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s groundbreaking 1963 essay collection, these contemporary writers reflect on the past, present, and future of race in America. We’ve made significant progress in the fifty-odd years since Baldwin’s essays were published, but America is a long and painful distance away from a “post-racial society”—a truth we must confront if we are to continue to work towards change. Baldwin’s “fire next time” is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about; The Fire This Time “seeks to place the shock of our own times into historical context and, most importantly, to move these times forward” (Vogue).

I have had this book on my to-read list for a while, but I wanted to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time first, thinking if the books were in dialogue with one another, it would be a good idea to read the conversation starter first. I’m so glad I read both of these books and so many other books in the closing weeks of this year. I am learning so much, and my eyes are opening up to a reality that has always run parallel to my existence, but which I never understood because it wasn’t my experience. I have had to contend with my own racism, and I’d like to think I have overcome it, but I know that I am a work in progress. At least I am trying to listen, though that’s not much and certainly isn’t enough.

As an educator, this reading has been essential to me because I see all how schooling is a social justice problem, and I have been a part of that problem. I’d like to be part of the solution going forward. I have ideas about how we might resolve some of the social justices issues inherent in our educational system.

This collection of essays pivots around the Black Lives Matter movement and two refrains run through many of the essays: Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, MO, and the murders of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In a particularly searing paragraph, contributor Daniel José Older says,

[T]he simple, resonating demand that black lives matter laid bare the twin lies of American equality and execeptionalism. Even on the left, even in this age of exposed racial rifts, politicians still say with a straight face that this country was founded on principles of equality. Words mean things, we say again and again, but actions mean much more, and still as a nation, we worship the very slave owners who gave legal precedence to the notion of percentages of human beings. We scream equality and freedom while unabashedly modeling our actions on the fathers of genocide. (200-201)

And this is the crux, to me, of what this book examines in contributions from luminaries such as Claudia Rankine, Edwidge Danticat, Clint Smith, Isabel Wilkerson, among many others. In some ways, it finds a partner in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. Both collections, as well as James Baldwin’s book, as America to hold a mirror up to its face and honestly examine what it sees. We just don’t want to do it. I suppose I am taking a hard look at America because I’m trying to figure out what went wrong. I think I have a deeper understanding of why we are in the political predicament in which we currently find ourselves. Making sense of it doesn’t make me feel better in any way. If anything, I feel worse. But I don’t know if I am yet hopeless. Maybe I am. Confronting these hard truths about who we are is not something the majority of Americans seem willing to do, but I hope people s in this collection, so it’s hard to pull out particular favorites. If I skim through the book, I noticed that I highlighted the contributions of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Wendy S. Walters, Carol Anderson, Kevin Young, Kiese Laymon, Garnette Cadogan, Claudia Rankine, Emily Raboteau, Daniel José Older, and Edwidge Danticat. My own city of Worcester plays a role in Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s essay “‘Dear Pledges of Our Love’: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband.” Jeffers traveled to the American Antiquarian Society, located in Worcester, to research Wheatley. It’s shocking how little we know for certain about Wheatley, and it’s perhaps even more shocking we have probably relied on an erroneous source for what we do know.  You will definitely learn something if you pick up this book, but my hunch is you’ll learn a great deal.

five-stars

Review: Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds

Review: Long Way Down, Jason ReynoldsLong Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books ISBN: 1481438255
on October 24th 2017
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 320
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer.
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

Long Way Down was all the talk of the recent National Council of Teachers of English Conference I attended right before Thanksgiving, and for good reason. Written entirely in verse, the whole book takes place in the course of 60 seconds as Will rides down the elevator with his brother Shawn’s gun tucked into his waistband and revenge on his mind. Reynolds captures the voice of his character with clarity and honesty.

The only thing I can say about this book is read it. It’s an experience. You won’t be able to put it down until you finish. Maybe not even then. Not a word feels out of place in this compelling story about the “rules” we force others to follow. I didn’t come up with this line, but a fellow reviewer on Goodreads remarked that Reynolds “doesn’t use the device of verse as a crutch; he wields it like a weapon.” It’s incredible what Reynolds can do with his spare free verse poetry. This is definitely one elevator ride you will not want to miss.

Jason Reynolds is an author to watch. Full disclosure: I met Jason Reynolds in 2016 at the NCTE conference. I was at a roundtable discussion, and he discussed rewriting Shakespeare’s sonnets in other idioms as a fun way to engage students. He demonstrated with his rendition of Sonnet 138, and it was incredible. He often discusses not being a reader when he was a teenager, which is one reason he has been moved to write the books he wanted to read when he was young.

five-stars