November Reading Round-Up

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I haven’t had much time to do reviews lately, so I’m going to gather up a few short reviews for books I’ve read since finishing the last book I reviewed, Sourdough Culture. I re-read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as I was teaching both books this month. I tried something I have never done before I listened to both books as I took my daily walks at 1.3x speed. I found I was able to keep up and get through the readings more quickly. I’m not sure it would work with books I’ve never read before, but it was a great timesaver for re-reading books I needed to read for work.

I also re-read Frankenstein along with Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure. It was interesting, as Michael pointed out some of the book’s flaws, and I have to admit I hadn’t noticed these storytelling issues in the past, largely, I believe, as a result of English teacher conditioning. I’d be the first to admit not all classics are great, but it was interesting to read this book along with someone who didn’t like it.

November Reading Round-UpThe 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, Nikkolas Smith
Published by Kokila ISBN: 0593307356
on November 16, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 48
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

The 1619 Project’s lyrical picture book in verse chronicles the consequences of slavery and the history of Black resistance in the United States, thoughtfully rendered by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Newbery honor-winning author Renée Watson. A young student receives a family tree assignment in school, but she can only trace back three generations. Grandma gathers the whole family, and the student learns that 400 years ago, in 1619, their ancestors were stolen and brought to America by white slave traders. But before that, they had a home, a land, a language. She learns how the people said to be born on the water survived.

This book was outstanding. I often purchase children’s books for classroom use even though I teach high school because if you can explain a topic to a child, pretty much anyone can understand it. Over the last five years or so, in particular, children’s publishing has made a much greater effort to incorporate books about children of color by authors of color. They still have a way to go, but it’s important for all children to see themselves in books, and it’s also important for all children to learn about people who are different from them. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop developed the term “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” to explain this concept. The sliding glass doors are an invitation to enter, to go inside. I was able to attend a keynote at a recent English teacher’s conference in which the author Nikole Hannah-Jones and illustrator Nikkolas Smith discussed the making of this book, and it was fascinating to hear about the way Smith developed the artwork, which is gorgeous. What I love most about this book is the counternarrative it offers to a colonist’s perspective that an indigenous culture had no culture. Naturally, this is never true, but it’s a lie that is often told to justify treating people as less than human. This would be a great gift for any child’s library, and it should also be in every school and classroom library.

November Reading Round-UpGrace: Based on the Jeff Buckley Story by Tiffanie DeBartolo, Pascal Dizin
Published by First Second ISBN: 159643287X
on April 28, 2019
Genres: Biography
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
three-stars

A moving graphic biography for music lovers, Grace: The Jeff Buckley Story is painstakingly researched and created in collaboration with Jeff Buckley's estate.

California, 1991. All his life, people have told Jeff Buckley how much he looks like his father, the famous ’60s folksinger he barely knew. But Jeff believes he has gifts of his own: a rare, octave-spanning voice and a songwriting genius that has only started to show itself. After he falls in love with a mysterious girl in New York, he sets out to make a name for himself outside his father’s shadow. What follows are six turbulent years of music, heartbreak, hope, and daring—culminating in a tragedy that’s still reverberating in the music world today. Written by Tiffanie DeBartolo and with art by Pascal Dizin and Lisa Reist, this graphic novel biography uses archival material provided by Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, to reveal the young songwriter in the process of becoming a legend.

This book was okay. Let me start by saying that I’m a huge fan of Jeff Buckley’s, and I have been for a long time. I recently went to see a touring production of Hadestown with my husband, and once my husband pointed out that Orpheus was giving off Jeff Buckley vibes, I couldn’t unsee it. I listened to the off-Broadway production and discovered that Damon Daunno pretty much sounds just like Jeff Buckley.

And he even resembles him a bit. Broadway performer Reeve Carney has been tapped to play Jeff Buckley in a film production based on the artist’s life. I remembered I had this graphic biography on my wishlist, so I went ahead and purchased it. I was a bit disappointed. I felt that at times, the story was not treated with seriousness, especially as depicted by the artist. I really didn’t care for the art; the cover led me to believe I’d be seeing something different inside the book, and while some of the art was fantastic, most of it was too cartoony. The story sort of peters out after Buckley records Grace, and I don’t think enough of his story was really included. This was sort of the Wikipedia version of his biography. The book also seems to imply that Buckley committed suicide, which is a rumor that has been given no credit by anyone who knew him. I would advise Buckley fans to avoid this book and look elsewhere for a good biography.

November Reading Round-UpWe Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell, Frané Lessac
Published by Charlesbridge Publishing ISBN: 1623541921
on April 20, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 40
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

Twelve Native American kids present historical and contemporary laws, policies, struggles, and victories in Native life, each with a powerful refrain: We are still here! Too often, Native American history is treated as a finished chapter instead of relevant and ongoing. This companion book to the award-winning We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga offers readers everything they never learned in school about Native American people's past, present, and future. Precise, lyrical writing presents topics including: forced assimilation (such as boarding schools), land allotment and Native tribal reorganization, termination (the US government not recognizing tribes as nations), Native urban relocation (from reservations), self-determination (tribal self-empowerment), Native civil rights, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), religious freedom, economic development (including casino development), Native language revival efforts, cultural persistence, and nationhood.

This was another classroom library purchase, and I think it explains very succinctly what issues indigenous people have experienced with settler colonialism in the USA. I was not surprised to learn one of the sources for the information was David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. I learned much of the information covered in this children’s book from Treuer’s book. However, as I said before, if you can explain it to a child, you can explain it to anyone. One of the reviewers on Goodreads complained this would not make a great read-aloud for children, and I would say I agree with that assessment. It’s more of an information text for people of all ages who want to learn about the issues the book discusses.

November Reading Round-UpChange Sings: a Children's Anthem by Amanda Gorman, Loren Long
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers ISBN: 0593203224
on September 21, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 32
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

A lyrical picture book debut from Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and illustrator Loren Long. “I can hear change humming/ In its loudest, proudest song. / I don’t fear change coming, / And so I sing along.” In this stirring, much-anticipated picture book by inaugural Youth Poet Laureate and activist Amanda Gorman, anything is possible when our voices join together. As a young girl leads a cast of characters on a musical journey, they learn that they have the power to make changes—big or small—in the world, in their communities, and in most importantly, in themselves.

In contrast to the previous book, this book was made for read-alouds, and it’s no wonder, as Amanda Gorman is a brilliant young poet. This book’s catchy language will appeal to people of all ages, as well. I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of gifts for children, especially. I’m not sure if it has a place in my classroom library, as it doesn’t focus on a single issue, though the artwork makes it clear the book is about community organization. I think that’s what would make the book appealing to children, however. It’s a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book.

Update 12/2: I have removed the name of one of the illustrators of Grace by request. I retrieve all metadata on books from Goodreads.


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Great British Baking Show 2021

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Warning: If you haven’t watched this season of The Great British Baking Show, read no further. Spoilers!

***

 

This season has been my absolute favorite season so far. I loved so many of the bakers, and for the first time, I felt like there was no clear winner going into the final. I absolutely felt like any of the three finalists could have won, and in any other season, there is no way a baker as gifted as Jürgen wouldn’t have made it to the final. I have to admit I was rooting for Giuseppe. Ever since Paul Hollywood asked Giuseppe for his focaccia recipe, I was rooting for him. I admit I was also rooting for Jürgen, and I was crushed when he was eliminated last week.

What I love about this show is how supportive the contestants are of each other. They are truly happy for each other when they’re successful. It makes me sad to say, but it’s not a show that would work in the USA. I know they tried to start an American version of the show, and I understand it failed. I think it’s because we’re too individualistic and competitive. That’s not to say that the UK isn’t also an individualistic society, but they’ve at least managed to care enough about their fellow human beings to have universal health care.

A few years ago, I was intimidated as a baker. I might make occasional cookies and brownies, but I was scared of trying more complicated bakes like bread, and cakes have always been a bit of a challenge for me because I’m impatient and don’t wait for them to cool before frosting them. Watching this show has helped me try things I might not have tried (certainly not at their caliber or level, however). But more than anything else, I love this show because makes me believe in people. This pandemic has been so hard. It’s not over, either. This show has been one light spot over the last two years. I’m really grateful for it because it gives me hope.

It shows me the best parts of humanity every week when I feel surrounded by the worst parts. It’s beautiful to watch the bakers grow over the course of the series. Chigs, for example, started baking during lockdown. That he was in the final is incredible, and he grew tremendously as a baker while competing on the show. Crystelle, too, has had some incredible moments, including a Hollywood handshake during a showstopper and another showstopper that Paul Hollywood declared was “flawless.” It’s been such a journey, especially this season. I loved watching Lizzie every week. She was so cute, and her final showstopper in honor of neurodivergence was really heartwarming. I will buy whatever cookbooks Giuseppe writes, I swear. (I understand from the finale that he’s working on one with his father.) I just know Giuseppe has to have some killer sourdough starter going.

My next quest is trying to get my sister to watch. And then we need to watch it together.


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Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric Pallant

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Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric PallantSourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers by Eric Pallant
Published by Agate Surrey ISBN: 1572843012
on September 14, 2021
Genres: Cooking, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 280
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
four-stars

Sourdough bread fueled the labor that built the Egyptian pyramids. The Roman Empire distributed free sourdough loaves to its citizens to maintain political stability. More recently, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, sourdough bread baking became a global phenomenon as people contended with being confined to their homes and sought distractions from their fear, uncertainty, and grief. In Sourdough Culture, environmental science professor Eric Pallant shows how throughout history, sourdough bread baking has always been about survival.

Sourdough Culture presents the history and rudimentary science of sourdough bread baking from its discovery more than six thousand years ago to its still-recent displacement by the innovation of dough-mixing machines and fast-acting yeast. Pallant traces the tradition of sourdough across continents, from its origins in the Middle East's Fertile Crescent to Europe and then around the world. Pallant also explains how sourdough fed some of history's most significant figures, such as Plato, Pliny the Elder, Louis Pasteur, Marie Antoinette, Martin Luther, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and introduces the lesser-known—but equally important—individuals who relied on sourdough bread for sustenance: ancient Roman bakers, medieval housewives, Gold Rush miners, and the many, many others who have produced daily sourdough bread in anonymity.

Each chapter of Sourdough Culture is accompanied by a selection from Pallant's own favorite recipes, which span millennia and traverse continents, and highlight an array of approaches, traditions, and methods to sourdough bread baking. Sourdough Culture is a rich, informative, engaging read, especially for bakers—whether skilled or just beginners. More importantly, it tells the important and dynamic story of the bread that has fed the world.

I bought this book for myself as a birthday present. I learned some interesting things about how sourdough culture works as well as its use in historical bread baking. Pallant begins his history of sourdough with the conceit of tracing the origin of his own sourdough starter. He was told that its provenance was in the mining town of Cripple Creek, CO. in 1893; however, proving it turns out to be an impossible task. Pallant makes a case that sourdough’s survival is miraculous in the age of commercial yeast. He also addresses the boom in home-baked sourdough in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. (I personally know several people who never baked sourdough before the pandemic, and now they’re more expert than I am! Disclosure: I am not an expert.)

The historical aspects of the book are certainly interesting, though, at times, Pallant veers off-topic a bit. I found the scientific discussion of yeasts and bacteria really fascinating. Honestly, one of the first things I wanted to do was have my sourdough starter tested to see what sorts of yeasts and bacteria it contains. Can one do this? I feel like I found a website for a place where you could send your starter for testing, but now that I’m trying to find it again, I wonder if I dreamed it—sort of a 23 and Me for sourdough starter. I wouldn’t expect to find anything particularly odd about my starter, but it would be interesting to see what the dominant strains of yeast and bacteria are.

I found the chapter about the mass production of bread to be interesting, mainly because it helps explain why home-baked bread, even bread made with commercial yeast, tastes so much better than mass-produced bread. Honestly, his description of the Chorleywood Bread Process that is used to make commercial bread is kind of gross. It definitely did not make me want to go back to commercial bread, though, to be fair, I’m not sure if that process is used in the USA.

Pallant understands that making bread connects us to humanity’s history. I always feel connected to the past when I make a loaf of bread, and I feel even more connected when I make a loaf of sourdough. Sourdough demands time and patience, both of which are hard to come by in the 21st century.

Pallant also includes quite a few recipes, but frankly, there isn’t much that’s new. One recipe, for example, is Chad Robertson’s sourdough recipe. If you are looking for recipes, you’d do better to buy a bread recipe book. In fact, buy Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Because Pallant spoke so highly of it, I bought Daniel Leader’s Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making (paid link), and I’m looking forward to reading that book and trying some of the recipes.

I would probably recommend this book only to true bread freaks. I’m not sure people who don’t bake would enjoy it. On the other hand, if you are interested in food history or microhistory (history focusing on a narrow subject), then you might still enjoy this book even if you don’t bake.

Sourdough Foccacia made with my starter. Recipe link.
four-stars

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Review: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton

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Review: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie WaltonThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Published by 37 Ink, Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 198214016X
on March 30, 2021
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Length: 13 hours 17 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

An electrifying novel about the meteoric rise of an iconic interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour.

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

This book is AMAZING. I highly recommend listening to it on audio, as it’s read by a full cast including some pretty major players: Bahni Turpin, an award-winning audiobook narrator, voices Opal Jewel, and Tony-winning actor André De Shields (Hermes in Hadestown) voices Virgil LaFleur, Opal’s stylist and best friend. I wanted for those two characters, in particular, to be real people so that I could hang out with them and just listen to their stories. I loved everything about this book: the audiobook narration, the references to social media, the Rolling Stone-type magazine Sunny writes for, and the interview-style format.

I’m sure that fans of Daisy Jones & The Six would like it, but for me, it goes even deeper than that book to expose issues of sexism and racism in music. The story is both a fascinating look at rock’s history and its present. Dawnie Walton writes with authority on the subject, and as a lifelong music lover, it was so refreshing and fun to read about its history in a book like this. Walton couldn’t have bundled more of my personal interests into one book if she had tried—in fact, all she needed to do was make one of the characters a bread baker, and there’s literally nothing else to add. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves music.

five-stars

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Review: The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emezi

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Review: The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke EmeziThe Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Narrator: Yetide Badaki, Chukwudi Iwuji
Published by Penguin Audio ISBN: 0593211480
on August 4, 2020
Length: 7 hours 38 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
three-stars

Named one of the year’s most anticipated books by The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more. What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew?

One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.

Propulsively readable, teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations—a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader.

I read this book as part of the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge for September: read a book set in Africa. I had been wanting to read The Death of Vivek Oji for some time, and friends had recommended it. I also read it in the wake of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s attack on the author, Akwaeke Emezi, which made the rounds on Twitter and revealed Adichie has anti-trans sentiments, so I thought reading this book might be one way to support the author.

I’m not really sure why the story didn’t grab me. I think because Vivek/Nnemdi was an ancillary character in her own death, even though Emezi gave her a voice to narrate some of the chapters from her grave. Instead, this was the story of everyone else’s reactions to her death—yes, I get that this was the point—and especially due to the fact that no one was using her proper pronouns until the end, I was finding it hard to really follow her as a character. How did she identify? I felt like it mattered that the reader understand this important fact of her life. I felt like there was a bit too much going on to make the story gel for me. Osita’s conflict over his sexuality and relationship with his cousin, Juju’s conflict over her sexuality, the infidelity of Juju’s father, Juju being a girl instead of a boy, and the Niger wives’ experiences as ex-pats married to Nigerian husbands. Any one of those topics would have been ample material for a novel, but put together made the novel feel like it didn’t quite cohere for me.

On the other hand, the writing is very good, and the perspective Emezi offers is fresh. I understand that voice is paramount in Emezi’s work. Kavita’s grief over the loss of her child was palpable and very hard to read. For me, she is the character who emerges as most memorable, and I would have loved a focus entirely on her story as she wrestled with her grief and found out the truth about her child’s gender identity after that child’s death. The audiobook narrators were brilliant as well, and I highly recommend listening to this on audio with the caveat that it is hard to follow as the story shifts in time. In fact, that might be the reason it didn’t quite grab me. However, even though this book wasn’t for me, I recognize what Emezi is doing and look forward to reading other works they write.

three-stars

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Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

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Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Richard Matthews
Published by Books on Tape on October 17, 2003
Genres: History, Nonfiction, Science
Length: 17 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Bill Bryson has been an enormously popular author both for his travel books and for his books on the English language. Now, this beloved comic genius turns his attention to science. Although he doesn't know anything about the subject (at first), he is eager to learn and takes information that he gets from the world's leading experts and explains it to us in a way that makes it exciting and relevant. Even the most pointy-headed, obscure scientist succumbs to the affable Bryson's good nature and reveals how he or she figures things out. Showing us how scientists get from observations to ideas and theories is Bryson's aim, and he succeeds brilliantly. It is an adventure of the mind, as exciting as any of Bryson's terrestrial journeys.

I have read quite a few Bill Bryson books this year. I enjoy his comic voice, which is evident in this book, though not as strong as in the other books I read. Partly, it’s the subject matter. Still, he manages to explain some complex topics in an accessible way and be entertaining at the same time. I was reminded in particular of my courses in anthropology, astronomy, and weather and climate from college as I listened. I was surprised I remembered so much.

The book might be a little out of date. I think it was originally published in 2003, and I have a whole grown-up son living in my house who was published the same year. As such, given the scientific nature of the book’s topics, I believe some of the information to be out of date. For example, Bryson asserts in the books that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did not breed and even argued that the results might be similar to a mule (!). Well, I’m not sure when scientists discovered that’s not true, but the current prevailing thought is that they did, and not only did they, but many people the world over carry Neanderthal DNA. That was one example that I caught. It’s tricky because what we understand and the science behind it changes all the time.

Still, this was an enjoyable read, and I highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is not Bryson, but he’s great.

four-half-stars

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Peach-Bourbon Jam

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It’s finally peach season in New England. When I lived in Georgia, peach season started a little earlier in the summer, and I think it lasted longer, too. I went to the local pick-your-own and bought peaches, blackberries, and blueberries from their farm store. The peaches are juicy and delicious. I had two of them today!

I had been wanting to try the Peach-Bourbon Jam recipe from my America’s Test Kitchen book on canning and preserving. I don’t have permission to share the recipe publicly, but I took pictures of the process and results.

Peaches Cooking

Look at that boil! I took a quick video of it to share with my sister.

You need to check to see if the jam is set before putting it in jars, so one way to test that is to put a small plate in the freezer while you’re cooking the jam. Once the cooking is finished, take the plate out of the freezer, put a teaspoon of jam on it, and put it back in the freezer for two minutes. Take it out and run your finger through the jam. If it separates in a nice line, it’s set. If it runs back after you swipe your finger, it needs to cook a little bit more.

Peach Jam

This jam has a nice set.

I filled two jars. One thing I like about the ATK book is there are so many small-batch recipes. I only needed two peaches for this recipe.

There was enough jam in the pot coupled with the teaspoon tested on the plate to spread over a slice of bread, so I tried it. It’s delicious.

Peach Jam on Bread

Tomorrow I’m making biscuits. I can’t wait for my husband to try this jam.


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Review: Salt Houses, Hala Alyan

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Review: Salt Houses, Hala AlyanSalt Houses by Hala Alyan
Narrator: Leila Buck
Published by Mariner Books ISBN: 1328915859
on June 5, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 13 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.

Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we might think we understand—one that asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again.

This was an excellent book. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good intergenerational family saga. The book brilliantly explores the cost of war and the trauma of losing a homeland, especially in the quietly heartbreaking ending. It also explores the endurance of people in the face of conflict. Home may be lost, but the family will continue. It’s a great addition to the genre of historical fiction exploring what happens to a diaspora. The strength of women and how they hang onto and pass on culture and stories was such an important part of this book as well.

I really enjoyed the characters, who were so well-drawn and fully fleshed that I felt like I knew them. My favorites were probably Riham and Atef, but I really appreciated all of the characters. Alia is the character around which the book turns, and by the end, the reader has met five generations of the family as they have struggled to make a permanent home. I particularly appreciated how strong the women characters were. I think many Westerners have stereotyped notions of what Muslim women in the Middle East are like, and honestly, one of the best ways to dispel stereotypes is to tell our stories.

I also liked the structure of the novel. It was interesting for me to move among different characters and see the family dynamics and history through different family members’ eyes. The story begins in Nablus in Palestine in the 1960s in the leadup to the Six Days War and traces the family to the near present in 2014 in Amman, Jordan, which is another element of the structure that I liked. At times, the characters reflect on events in the past, but I didn’t find it hard to keep track, even though I was listening to the book instead of reading it in print. The narrator was also excellent, but after listening to the author (see below), I wish she had been able to narrate it. One of Alyan’s strengths is her ability to draw a scene. I think my absolute favorite scene in the book was Riham in the water, but Atef’s reflections near the novel’s end, and Souad’s chapter and Lina’s chapter were also compelling. I think this is a book I’ll be recommending to others.

The author has a fascinating story herself. Check out this story from NPR:

In this TED video, Alyan shares some of her poetry:

If you want to see her visit to Politics and Prose, check out this video, which includes a reading:

I read this book for my August selection for the Book Voyage Challenge—a book set in the Middle East.

five-stars

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Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

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Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy SchiffCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Published by Back Bay Books ISBN: 0316001945
on September 6, 2011
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 432
Format: E-Book, eBook
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
four-half-stars

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and—after his murder—three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff 's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

I think Cleopatra can best be summed up in a line from the immortal Beyoncé’s song “Formation.”

Beyoncé Gif

In all seriousness, this is a great biography, and I learned a lot. Schiff argues that Cleopatra’s legacy can be summed up by the fact that “in two thousand years only one or two other women could be said to have wielded unrestricted authority over so vast a realm.” Unfortunately, her story was co-opted by her enemies, and so she is known to history as a wily seductress, an ambitious temptress, and a deviant whore. Schiff explains that she was none of those things. What she was, however, was a smart, capable, formidable woman—a total badass. Shiff says that “her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy” and asserts that “the turncoats wrote [her] history.”

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence—in her ropes of pearls—there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.

Yes, QUEEN! Preach! Shiff’s appropriate eulogy is that Cleopatra “convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and—with all her might—struggled to make it so.”

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

This biography is well-written and engaging. Schiff’s research must have been difficult since history has been so unkind to Cleopatra. She must have had to do a great deal of reading between the lines to uncover a more balanced portrait. If Schiff’s account of Cleopatra’s life attempts to tip the scales in the great woman’s favor rather than to take the Roman historians at face value, I can’t fault her. The only reason for me that this book doesn’t earn 5 stars is that I didn’t have any trouble putting it down for stretches of time. I wanted to finish it, and I was definitely not bored, however, so I would not argue that it doesn’t captivate. The chapters are really long, and I would have liked more breaks. I think the prospect of opening the book on my Kindle app and seeing that the chapter would take over an hour to read may have been too daunting on a few occasions. I’m not a fan of stopping the middle of a chapter, but I had to sometimes when reading this book. On the other hand, Schiff’s writing style is eminently readable and at times waxes poetic. Schiff paints a fascinating portrait of a much-maligned, highly intelligent, and incredibly ingenious woman.

four-half-stars

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Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson

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Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill BrysonShakespeare by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0061555347
on October 23, 2007
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Length: 5 hours 28 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

If you’ve seen my most recent reviews, you might have noticed I’m on a bit of a Bill Bryson kick right now. I had been wanting to read this book for a while, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t moved it from my TBR pile to my reading pile. The other day, I had to put a hold on an audiobook I wanted from the library, and I figured I’d see if I could listen to this one instead, especially as it is short. Yesterday, the book I had put on hold became available to check out, so I thought I should try to finish this book up.

Did I learn anything new here? Well, not really, but that’s only because I’ve read a lot about Shakespeare. I’m no expert, but I have been teaching his plays for over 20 years, and I have taken coursework in addition to the reading I’ve done. I think the average casual reader would learn quite a bit.

Bryson is by no means a Shakespeare scholar, but what he writes in this slim book corresponds with what I have learned from others. The book’s brevity and humor might make it more accessible for some people interested in learning more about what we can know definitively about William Shakespeare. The truth is, we know quite a lot, particularly for a man of the sixteenth/seventeenth centuries. He’s one of the most dissected people to have lived, and unlikely new discoveries are sometimes made. Bryson recounts a few of these in the book. He carefully veers away from speculating when we don’t really know—which is refreshing because people fill in the gaps of our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life in some really strange ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for what it was meant to be: a brief biography based entirely on what we know about William Shakespeare.

five-stars

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