Review: How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith

Review: How the Word is Passed, Clint SmithHow the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
ISBN: 0316492930
on June 1, 2021
Genres: History
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Poet and contributor to The Atlantic Clint Smith’s revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave-owning nation.

Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader through an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.

It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving over 400 people on the premises. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola Prison in Louisiana, a former plantation named for the country from which most of its enslaved people arrived and which has since become one of the most gruesome maximum-security prisons in the world. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

In a deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view-whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods—like downtown Manhattan—on which the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women and children has been deeply imprinted.

Informed by scholarship and brought alive by the story of people living today, Clint Smith’s debut work of nonfiction is a landmark work of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in understanding our country.

This is a fascinating book and a must-read for, well, everyone. In the pages of this book, Clint Smith embarks on a journey to several sites associated with slavery and racism and shares the stories of those sites and how their past is either reckoned with or isn’t. For a taste, you might consider reading Smith’s recent article in The Atlantic: “Why Confederate Lies Live On.” For another, more poetic taste, check out this poem:

In the book’s Epilogue, Smith writes that we are not as removed from the history of slavery and racism as some of us would like to pretend. Recalling a story his grandmother told him about White children throwing food at her from their bus as she walked, he writes, “The children who threw food at my grandmother and called her a n***** are likely bouncing their own great-grandchildren on their laps” (288). I know for a fact that they are because I was raised by them, as hard as it is for me to say. I love some of my family and they have been and in some cases still are deeply racist. Part of the reason that racism persists is ignorance. So much of the truth of what really happened was not taught in schools. I know I didn’t learn it. I do think more efforts are made now to try to right that wrong, but many states are also engaged in a fierce battle—at this very moment—to prevent teachers from teaching students the truth about slavery and racism.

Learning the truth about this country could be cleansing and freeing, but there is so much fear. As Smith argues, students “knowing their history helps them more effectively identify the lies” they are told about their history and their present (262). Ultimately, Smith’s thesis is that if we know the truth, we can heal and move forward, but if we continue to remain ignorant, then our societal problems due to racism will persist.

Smith’s writing is lyrical and beautiful at times. Smith’s background as a poet is on full display in some of the language he uses. He begins the book by calling on readers to listen. In his Prologue, he uses language such as “congregation,” “crowd,” and “gathered” to call his audience together to hear what he has learned in his travels to Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston, New York City, and Gorée Island (Senegal), finally ending with his grandparents’ stories. Smith makes the clear argument that history is us; we caused it to happen, and we can change its course.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

five-stars

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021

I haven’t written any reviews in a couple of months as I prepared to defend my dissertation and had little time to do much of anything but that, but the good news is that I am now Dr. Huff! Here is a picture of me and my dissertation committee right after my dissertation chair referred to me as Dr. Huff for the very first time.

Dana Huff Dissertation Defense

I can’t remember if I have written about it here or not, but I joined Noom and lost nearly 40 pounds since November 2020. One of the things I did to get active and lose weight was take up walking. I walk at least 10,000 steps each day, usually more. As I walk, I listen to audiobooks, which has pretty much been the only way I’ve been able to read as much as I have over this year. Here are some quick reviews of the books I read in May and June (so far).

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021Fool by Christopher Moore
Narrator: Euan Morton
Published by Harper Audio on February 10, 2009
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 8 hours 41 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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four-stars

"This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as nontraditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank . . . If that's the sort of thing you think you might enjoy, then you have happened upon the perfect story!"

A man of infinite jest, Pocket has been Lear's cherished fool for years, from the time the king's grown daughters—selfish, scheming Goneril, sadistic (but erotic-fantasy-grade-hot) Regan, and sweet, loyal Cordelia—were mere girls. So naturally Pocket is at his brainless, elderly liege's side when Lear—at the insidious urging of Edmund, the bastard (in every way imaginable) son of the Earl of Gloucester—demands that his kids swear their undying love and devotion before a collection of assembled guests. Of course, Goneril and Regan are only too happy to brownnose Dad. But Cordelia believes that her father's request is kind of . . . well . . . stupid, and her blunt honesty ends up costing her her rightful share of the kingdom and earns her a banishment to boot.

Well, now the bangers and mash have really hit the fan. The whole damn country's about to go to hell in a handbasket because of a stubborn old fart's wounded pride. And the only person who can possibly make things right . . . is Pocket, a small and slight clown with a biting sense of humor. He's already managed to sidestep catastrophe (and the vengeful blades of many an offended nobleman) on numerous occasions, using his razor-sharp mind, rapier wit . . . and the equally well-honed daggers he keeps conveniently hidden behind his back. Now he's going to have to do some very fancy maneuvering—cast some spells, incite a few assassinations, start a war or two (the usual stuff)—to get Cordelia back into Daddy Lear's good graces, to derail the fiendish power plays of Cordelia's twisted sisters, to rescue his gigantic, gigantically dim, and always randy friend and apprentice fool, Drool, from repeated beatings . . . and to shag every lusciously shaggable wench who's amenable to shagging along the way. Pocket may be a fool . . . but he's definitely not an idiot.

I read and enjoyed Christopher Moore’s The Serpent of Venice, which is actually this book’s sequel, so after my husband and I listened to King Lear on audio, we decided to try this. If you like Python-esque humor, you’ll appreciate Christopher Moore.

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Narrator: Quyen Ngo
Published by Dreamscape Media on March 17, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 10 hours 44 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee's Pachinko and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War.

Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's first novel in English.

This is a stellar book, and I’m glad I listened to it as I was able to rely on the narrator’s fluency with Vietnamese. I can see why the Goodreads review mentioned the books by Lee, Gyasi, and Ratner (all of which I’ve also read). If you liked any of those books, you will like this one for sure. I read this book as my selection for the Book Voyage Challenge’s book set in South Asia.

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Narrator: Allison Hiroto
Published by Hachette Book Group on February 7, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

I learned so much from this book. I haven’t read very much about immigration and racism outside of the United States, and this book opened my eyes to a great deal of history I didn’t know. I really enjoy multigenerational family sagas. I read this book as my selection for the Book Voyage Challenge’s book set in North Asia. I read these last two books out of order, as I mistakenly thought the book set in South Asia was for April, but it was actually the book set in North Asia.

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee
Published by Twelve ISBN: 0446698970
on March 23, 2009
Genres: Cooking, History
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
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four-stars

If you think McDonald's is the most ubiquitous restaurant experience in America, consider that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys combined. New York Times reporter and Chinese-American (or American-born Chinese). In her search, Jennifer 8 Lee traces the history of Chinese-American experience through the lens of the food. In a compelling blend of sociology and history, Jenny Lee exposes the indentured servitude Chinese restaurants expect from illegal immigrant chefs, investigates the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, and weaves a personal narrative about her own relationship with Chinese food.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles speaks to the immigrant experience as a whole, and the way it has shaped our country.

This book was given to me in a wonderful book swap I participated in via Twitter. I probably never would have picked it for myself, even though I love reading food histories. I learned a lot in this book, not the least America’s adoption of Chinese-American cuisine. I knew some of the fraught history with immigration, but there was still much to learn on that front as well.

I also re-read King Lear and A Thousand Acres.

Review: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Review: Anna Karenina, Leo TolstoyAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky
Narrator: Miranda Pleasence
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0140449175
on January 30, 2003
Genres: Classic
Pages: 852
Length: 36 hours 59 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

"Everything is finished. I have nothing but you now. Remember that."

Anna Karenina seems to have everything—beauty, wealth, popularity, and an adored son. But she feels that her life is empty until the moment she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalizes society and family alike and soon brings jealously and bitterness in its wake. Contrasting with this tale of love and self-destruction is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life—and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.

I have tried to read this book several times and not been able to get very far. I think my problem was the translation. On a fellow English teacher’s recommendation, I sought out the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, and it was so wonderful that now I’m rethinking my experience with Crime and Punishment—perhaps I should try that book again with the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation?

Anna Karenina was (when I finally read it) one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read. If I had one quibble, I’d say it’s mistitled. To me, this book is really Levin’s story. He is the character around which all the storylines revolve. He was my favorite character and also the most interesting psychologically. I loved the passage near the beginning when he sees Kitty skating, and Tolstoy writes, “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” I mean… Damn. It was nearly 37 hours long, and I would have listened to more. Tolstoy just understands people. I haven’t seen the like in anything else I’ve read, excepting maybe Shakespeare and Toni Morrison. In fact, it would not surprise me to learn that Toni Morrison liked Tolstoy (I need to read more of her nonfiction). In spite of the massive length of his books, reading this made me want to read more. I’ll be sure to read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations, no matter what, because I was really impressed with their work. Obviously, I don’t know Russian, but what I appreciated was the readability. I have had so much trouble reading books translated from the Russian in the past.

I read that Larissa Volokhonsky essentially translates Russian texts word-for-word, and Richard Pevear then finesses the translation so it sounds better in English. It struck me as kind of a smart approach. Translation is definitely an art. One thing I often did when I taught Beowulf was to ask students to compare several different versions of the same passage to see what they liked and disliked about each one. This translation of Anna Karenina was the one selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, and it catapulted Pevear and Volokhonsky into the limelight.

As to the novel itself, setting aside the translation, it seems to capture so much about the human condition: yearning and love, double standards for men and women, parenting and families (that opening line, of course). I got the sense that each character in the novel, no matter how minor, was walking into the novel from a novel of their own. They were all so incredibly real. I almost didn’t feel like I was reading a book. It’s hard to explain, but reading this book was more like listening to the stories of friends. It was just… incredible. A new favorite.

five-stars

Review: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds.

Review: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds.Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi, Keisha N. Blain
Published by One World ISBN: 0593134044
on February 2, 2021
Genres: History
Pages: 528
Length: 14 hours and 2 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An epoch-defining history of African America, the first to appear in a generation, Four Hundred Souls is a chronological account of four hundred years of Black America as told by ninety of America's leading Black writers.

Curated by Ibram X. Kendi, author of the number one bestseller How To Be an Antiracist, and fellow historian Keisha N. Blain, Four Hundred Souls begins with the arrival of twenty enslaved Ndongo people on the shores of the British colony in mainland America in 1619, the year before the arrival of the Mayflower.

In eighty chronological chapters, the book charts the tragic and triumphant four-hundred-year history of Black American experience in a choral work of exceptional power and beauty.

Contributors include some of the best-known scholars, writers, historians, journalists, lawyers, poets and activists of contemporary America who together bring to vivid life countless new facets to the drama of slavery and resistance, segregation and survival, migration and self-discovery, cultural oppression and world-changing artistic, literary and musical creativity. In these pages are dozens of extraordinary lives and personalities, rescued from the archives and restored to their rightful place in America's narrative, as well as the ghosts of millions more.

Four Hundred Souls is an essential work of story-telling and reclamation that redefines America and changes our notion of how history is written.

In spite of what the information above indicates, I actually listened to the audiobook, and let me tell you, it’s an incredible audiobook. This is a book you need in multiple formats. I am going to purchase the hardcover. I almost don’t know where to start except to say that I think people should read this book. You’ll learn a lot. Some of it might surprise you. I consider myself fairly well versed in history, and there was much I didn’t know. The structure of the book is interesting. Each chapter covers a five-year period in Black American history. Some chapters are written as straight nonfiction while others are poems. I liked seeing the various genres. I recognized and have read many of the authors whose work is found here.

I wondered a bit about the recording of the audiobook and came to the conclusion that the various narrators may have recorded their chapters using home equipment. I noticed some variable audio quality. None of that is to say there was any poor quality audio, but some sounded more professionally produced than others. It would make sense if narrators couldn’t travel to record due to the pandemic. If you have a chance to listen to the audio, I highly recommend it, but you’ll want the paper book, too.

In the novel Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s character Yaw tells his students,

“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on… We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

The novel Homegoing was a way to capture the stories that are missing. This book is, too. It belongs on every shelf.

five-stars

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
Narrator: Laurence Fishburne
Published by Audible Studios on September 10, 2020
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Length: 16 hours and 52 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

One of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Experience a bold take on this classic autobiography as it’s performed by Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

In this searing classic autobiography, originally published in 1965, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and Black empowerment activist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Human Rights movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American dream and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-White citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the African American experience and America as a whole.

©1965 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabazz (P)2020 Audible, Inc.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I had been meaning for years—perhaps as long as a decade. I admit I was a bit daunted by the length, and I had only seen the mass-market paperback version with tiny print. I can’t really read mass-market paperbacks anymore. I’m sure there were other, more accessible versions available, but for whatever reason, I never crossed paths with one. I was thrilled to discover this new audio recording narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne.

Malcolm X led a fascinating life. I was really intrigued by his stint in prison and the education he was able to obtain while incarcerated (check out this list of books he mentions he read while in prison). He clearly repudiated his life before prison in the book, in spite of the fact that one might argue that Malcolm X had been dealt a particularly difficult hand: not only was he essentially an orphan as a teenager when his father was killed and his mother was hospitalized, but he was also brought up in a racist society that devalued his intellect and talents. He describes telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up only to be discouraged from pursuing that career by this racist teacher who insisted, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—–. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n—–.” This from a teacher Malcolm X admired, too. Honestly, after reading this book, the first thing I thought is that Malcolm X would have made an excellent lawyer. He knew how to craft an argument, and he had a fairly stunning intellect.

One area where I would push back against Malcolm X is his misogynoir. That might not be the right term. I don’t think he hated women. I don’t think he respected them very much, either, however, and he definitely viewed them as inferior. One might point to his religion, but I’m not sure it’s entirely related to Islam because he seemed to feel that way before he converted as well (and Islam is not the only patriarchal religion—I hear many of the same anti-woman ideas from many corners). It does not follow that just because one knows and understands what it is like to be part of an oppressed group that one naturally empathizes with other oppressed groups, and I would argue this is true of Malcolm X. The most troubling argument he makes is that societies crumble when their women have what he’d describe as loose morals. He describes a case study of “Westernized” women in Lebanon versus women in Saudi Arabia (whom he deemed more properly in their place), and he makes a pretty poor case if you ask me.

It was disheartening to read of Malcolm X’s betrayal by the Nation of Islam, an organization he had done so much to promote. It was also chilling to read Malcolm X’s insistence that he expected to die by violence. One thing that struck me especially hard was that Malcolm X and my grandfather were born in the same month and year. You couldn’t have identified two more different people if you had tried. Their lives and experiences in society couldn’t have been further apart. Perhaps my favorite passage of the Autobiography was Malcolm X’s description of improving his reading comprehension by copying out the dictionary.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

Malcolm X’s ideas have been so widely influential. Modern anti-racist, anti-bias movements owe much to Malcolm X’s thought. I have heard so much about Malcolm X, much of it controversial, fear-mongering lies, unfortunately, and I felt it was important to read his story for myself. For example, many people believe Malcolm X to be biased against White people, and while this was true (and not without good cause, I might add), he later changed these views after experiencing the Hajj and meeting fellow Muslim pilgrims who were White. He viewed Islam as a unifying force. Malcolm X wrestled honestly with his life in this memoir. This is an important book that I think many people should read in order to better understand our American society.

five-stars

Review: Tartine Bread, Chad Robertson

Review: Tartine Bread, Chad RobertsonTartine Bread by Chad Robertson, Eric Wolfinger
Published by Chronicle Books (CA) ISBN: 1452100284
on October 29, 2013
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 304
Format: E-Book
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five-stars

For the home or professional bread-maker, this is the book. It comes from a man many consider to be the best bread baker in the United States: Chad Robertson, co-owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, a city that knows its bread. To Chad, bread is the foundation of a meal, the center of daily life, and each loaf tells the story of the baker who shaped it. He developed his unique bread over two decades of apprenticeship with the finest artisan bakers in France and the United States, as well as experimentation in his own ovens. Readers will be astonished at how elemental it is. A hundred photographs from years of testing, teaching, and recipe development provide step-by-step inspiration, while additional recipes provide inspiration for using up every delicious morsel.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall I’ve been learning how to bake bread for a few years now. I struggle to find time to bake sourdough bread because it has such a long rise. During the week, it’s just not really possible because of work. If I want to bake on the weekend, I need to plan in advance so that I can get my starter active again. I recently read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, and it reminded me that I still hadn’t finished Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Pollan learns to bake sourdough from Robertson and documents his experience in that book. I have read quite a few books about baking sourdough, and my results have been sort of mixed. I decided to give Tartine Bread a try because I had heard that Robertson’s recipe and technique were good.

The selling point of Jim Lahey’s recipe and technique is that it is a no-knead recipe, and you can let it rise overnight. I kind of liked what I saw in Ken Forkish’s book, but it didn’t wow me. I thought it was me, and partly it was. It took me a while to figure out how you could tell your starter was active. I really like Chad Robertson’s helpful technique of dropping a bit into some water to see if it floats. If it does, it’s active. If it sinks, wait longer. I believe that Ken Forkish shared that tip in his book as well. Of the sourdough recipes I’ve tried, I think I liked Paul Hollywood’s recipe the least. I didn’t have good results with it. I figured I’d see what happened with Robertson’s recipe, and I was not disappointed.

I tried Robertson’s recipe and technique as written and made some beautiful loaves of sourdough.

Sourdough Bread
I had to get my starter in there, you know.

I halved the recipe so as to make just one loaf, and I’ve had a chance to bake twice using the halved recipe. I was initially afraid the salt amount was too much, but the bread doesn’t taste salty. The folding technique is easy to master once you’ve tried it a few times. The bread has a perfect crust. I baked Jim Lahey’s recipe as written and found the crust way too hard and dark for my liking. The kids wouldn’t eat it either. In fact, this recipe marks the first time they’ve eaten the sourdough bread I made (I know; they’re weird).

I did not make a starter using Robertson’s technique. I have had a starter going (in the fridge, for the most part) since late 2017, and I didn’t see any reason to make a fresh starter. I’m glad I didn’t worry about it because I don’t think I needed to. I tried the recipe with a bottle of spring water and then with water from the Brita pitcher and noticed no difference, so I think Robertson is right that the water doesn’t matter. He argues that the flour does, and I think he gets his from a local mill. I used King Arthur, which has been my go-to for a number of years now—pretty much since I moved to New England, though I clung to White Lily when I could find it for a little while. If you’re curious, I used King Arthur’s directions to make my starter. Robertson’s recipe calls for whole wheat flour, but what I had on hand is King Arthur’s sprouted whole wheat, which has a slightly milder flavor. I am convinced that the small amount of whole wheat flour is what separates Robertson’s recipe from the rest. It’s not really enough whole wheat flour to taste like wheat bread, necessarily, but I think it adds a flavor that white flour alone doesn’t have. I will definitely have to try Robertson’s recipe with regular whole wheat flour when I run out of the sprouted whole wheat.

I think if you get this book, you will probably get it for the main country bread recipe. I’m sure some of the others are good, but I haven’t tried them yet. Some of the recipes aside from the main recipe for country bread, as Robertson calls it, strike me as a bit different… and complicated, too, but we did try the French toast, which was probably the best French toast we’ve ever had. It smelled amazing as it was baking, too.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to try sourdough baking. This is hands-down the best recipe I’ve tried so far, and my results using Robertson’s recipe and technique have been the best out of the sourdough recipes I’ve tried, too. Honestly, I thought the country bread recipe alone made the book worth it.

five-stars

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell Potter

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell PotterHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Narrator: Ell Potter
Published by Random House Audio on July 21, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 12 hours and 42 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

Drawing on Maggie O'Farrell's long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare's most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley Street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O'Farrell's new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Oh, this book. I just loved it. Recently, I shared in my review of Never Caught that the author missed an opportunity to weave historical fiction out of the facts we know about Ona Judge. Anne Hathaway Shakespeare is another woman we know very little about. She was pregnant when she married William Shakespeare (who was quite a bit younger than she was), she raised their children practically alone while he worked as an actor and playwright in London, and Shakespeare left her his second-best bed in his will. From these scraps of information, many scholars have concluded that their marriage was not a happy one. O’Farrell takes a different tactic and imagines a love match for the couple that is nearly destroyed by the death of their son and William Shakespeare’s depression and lack of fulfillment.

O’Farrell chooses to call her Anne “Agnes,” as her father referred to her in his will. Agnes is something of an herbalist (and maybe a witch). She’s every bit as fascinating as Shakespeare (maybe more so, under O’Farrell’s pen). The story alternates between Agnes and Hamnet as narrators, for the most part, with tidbits from other characters such as Susanna and Judith. The story also shifts in time, beginning with Hamnet looking for someone, anyone (but particularly Agnes) to help him—his twin sister Judith is sick.

The historical details ring true. As a bread baker and soap maker, I especially appreciated O’Farrell’s references to Agnes’s talents in both areas. Agnes also keeps bees and is something of a bee charmer. However, my absolute favorite historical detail was O’Farrell’s chronicle of the journey of the flea that carried the bubonic plague to Stratford and, ultimately, to the Shakespeare household. It was utterly fascinating. As we are living in the midst of a pandemic right now, the details are also alarmingly present. How did the virus that infected my entire family with COVID-19 in January make its way to us? How does sickness travel like that? I think I appreciated O’Farrell’s exploration of the way the plague traveled even more for having a personal connection to another form of plague.

I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when I read. In that book, Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s equally talented sister who is unable to do the things her brother can do because she is a woman, and those doors are closed to her. What if Shakespeare’s wife were even more talented than he? That is actually how I interpret Agnes’s character. Yet she sacrifices so that he can realize his dreams and their children can be cared for. She’s not different from talented women throughout history in this respect.

Ell Potter is a charming narrator. I’m glad the audiobook was read by a woman, as ultimately, I think this a woman’s story. That’s not to say men wouldn’t enjoy it; quite the contrary, and maybe men should read it. Ron Charles has a great review of the book at The Washington Post. I definitely recommend this book to any fans of Shakespeare, though I caution you that he’s relegated to the sidelines. This story is the story of his family.

five-stars

Review: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Review: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong DunbarNever Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Narrator: Robin Miles
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1442394501
on February 7, 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Length: 6 hours 45 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

A startling and eye-opening look into America s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington s runaway slave who risked it all to escape the nation's capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn't get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire. Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one cold spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property. Impeccably researched, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.

The subject matter of this book is utterly fascinating; however, because so little is known about Ona Judge, the author, unfortunately, has to engage in a lot of speculation. To be sure, it is well-researched speculation and certainly rings true. I am grateful for Dunbar’s attention to detail and meticulous research. I was able to round out my understanding of quite a few historical issues on the topic of slavery I had not understood before. For example, Dunbar explains why Washington was unable to free people enslaved by Martha Washington’s first husband and why he chose not to free people he enslaved. I already felt the entire practice was reprehensible, but reading this book only underscored the inhumanity of slavery. It boggles the mind that people engaged in this practice and felt like it was acceptable, never mind the fact that many of them thought they were doing enslaved people a favor.

In addition to Ona Judge, I learned about Hercules Posey, Washington’s chef who also escaped to freedom. If I had one suggestion to round out this book, it might have been to write about several people enslaved by the Washingtons. It might have helped the author avoid the speculation she had to use. I think Ona Judge is a fascinating person, but we just don’t know enough about her to fill a book. I was interested to see a children’s version of this book has been printed. It’s entirely possible that a children’s version would have been just perfect—I think there is enough known about Ona Judge to fill a children’s or even YA book.

So why only 3.5 stars? Well, I think Dunbar missed an opportunity. I think Ona Judge’s story would have made excellent historical fiction. If Dunbar had opted for historical fiction, she wouldn’t have had to use the speculative voice that overwhelms the story. She also might have been able to include more details. As it is, I think Dunbar was constrained by the sparse details available about Judge’s life.

I would love to see more books like this one, but this story serves as a stark reminder of the many lives that are not recorded for posterity. Their lives mattered then, and they matter now.

three-half-stars

Review: Cooked, Michael Pollan

Review: Cooked, Michael PollanCooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Narrator: Michael Pollan
Published by Penguin Audio on April 23, 2013
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Pages: 14
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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four-half-stars

In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.

Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan's effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse-trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius "fermentos" (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The listener learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far-reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume huge quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

Cooked is the first of Michael Pollan’s books that I’ve read, though I know he has written a few other books about food. I’m not sure I would have found Cooked nearly as interesting about ten years ago as I did this year. I liked the organization of the book into the four ancient elements. The section on barbecue (fire) was fascinating, though to be fair, I devour pretty much anything about African-American and Southern foodways. I am also a bread-baker, so the section about bread (air) was probably my favorite, and it convinced me to go back into Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, which I’ve had on my Kindle for some time and started reading a while back and never finished. Stay tuned for a review on that book because I’m nearly done with it (yes, I read cookbooks cover-to-cover on occasion).

I wasn’t as fascinated by the fermentation or braising sections. I’m not sure why because everything about sourdough starter fascinates me. I think it’s just that a lot of the food in the fermentation section isn’t really the kind of thing I like, so I wasn’t as interested to hear how to do it, and braising is a technique I just don’t really use in my own cooking. However, the organization of the book was interesting, and Pollan’s reading is engaging and entertaining.

I agree with Pollan’s conclusions that it’s a shame so few people really cook anymore. I really enjoy cooking, but it does take time. However, what we eat for dinner has drastically improved in quality since I started cooking more seriously. Honestly, I credit a meal subscription plan called Home Chef with teaching me a lot, and Samin Nosrat’s book Salt Fat Acid Heat was also really helpful. The main reason we stopped subscribing to Home Chef is that we received spoiled vegetables a few too many times, and I decided that I needed to be able to select ingredients myself from the store. The actual recipes provided were pretty great, and I still use them all the time to cook meals.

Pollan argues that we’ll eat less processed food and connect more with family (eating together is communion—that’s my argument, not Pollan’s). My husband usually sits in the kitchen while I cook, and we listen to audiobooks and podcasts together. He’s not really a cook, though I think he’s interested. In any case, I think we enjoy these evening respites. I know that regularly cooking dinner has meant we better and saved money, not to mention the time to connect. (We are currently listening to Anna Karenina.)

I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in how cooking works—you’ll get a dose of science and history along with some fascinating cultural education.

four-half-stars

Review: Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Review: Born to Run, Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Narrator: Bruce Springsteen
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1508224234
on December 6, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Length: 18 hours and 12 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

“Writing about yourself is a funny business… But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” —Bruce Springsteen, from the pages of Born to Run

In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show. The experience was so exhilarating that Bruce decided to write about it. That’s how this extraordinary autobiography began.

Over the past seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to these pages the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs.

He describes growing up Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey, amid the poetry, danger, and darkness that fueled his imagination, leading up to the moment he refers to as “The Big Bang”: seeing Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He vividly recounts his relentless drive to become a musician, his early days as a bar band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. With disarming candor, he also tells for the first time the story of the personal struggles that inspired his best work, and shows us why the song “Born to Run” reveals more than we previously realized.

Born to Run will be revelatory for anyone who has ever enjoyed Bruce Springsteen, but this book is much more than a legendary rock star’s memoir. This is a book for workers and dreamers, parents and children, lovers and loners, artists, freaks, or anyone who has ever wanted to be baptized in the holy river of rock and roll.

Rarely has a performer told his own story with such force and sweep. Like many of his songs (“Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Rising,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” to name just a few), Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography is written with the lyricism of a singular songwriter and the wisdom of a man who has thought deeply about his experiences.

I’m really behind on writing reviews. I actually finished listening to this book some time back, and if you choose to read it, let me highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Springsteen himself. Here’s a teaser, courtesy PBS.

 

This memoir is a master class in the genre. In fact, I plan to order a paper copy of it so that I can use it in teaching narrative writing. It’s that good. In fact, it’s the best memoir I’ve read. I don’t say that lightly either, as I have read quite a few.

What makes this particular memoir a standout is its unflinching honesty and its poetic sensibility. Though we know Bruce Springsteen is a great songwriter, that kind of writing talent doesn’t always translate to other forms. I am a bit embarrassed to say how surprised I was that Springsteen’s memoir was so well-written.

I picked this up on Audible using one of my credits a long time ago, and I decided to listen to it at long last after enjoying Warren Zanes’s biography of Tom Petty so much. I like Bruce Springsteen’s music, but I must confess I was not what I’d call a fan. I would never change the station on one of his songs, but I also didn’t own a complete album, and the only album I had listened to in its entirety before reading this book was Born in the USA—my mom had that one when I was a kid. To be fair, I listened to that album a lot. One thing I tried to do as I read this book was go back and educate myself about Springsteen’s music, and holy hell is he amazing. I can’t believe I never listened to Born to Run all the way through. I have to say, “Jungleland” is probably my favorite of his songs.

Springsteen is also a voracious reader, and it shows in the allusions he makes to other books in the memoir itself. As an English teacher, catching those references was a real Easter-egg type of pleasant surprise. I often tell my students that if they want to be better writers, they need to read more. They need to observe what great writers do, what moves they make in their writing. Clearly, Springsteen understands the importance of reading for his writing, but I sense he just enjoys reading for its own sake.

Bruce Springsteen Writing
Bruce Springsteen Writing by Pamela Springsteen, the artist’s sister

When I reached the point in the memoir when Springsteen discussed the death of Clarence Clemons, I admit I cried a little, in spite of knowing very little about Clemons prior to reading this book. Springsteen’s ache over the loss of his friend and collaborator (and sometime co-conspirator) is palpable in his reading. I appreciated Springsteen’s frankness about his struggles with depression as well. It’s tragic that mental illness carries such a stigma, which prevents people from getting help. Springsteen talks about this stigma as well.

I highly recommend this wonderful memoir to anyone, especially music fans. If you are not a fan of Springsteen’s before you read, you will still enjoy this book—and you will probably be a fan afterward. I’ll close out with a playlist of my favorite Springsteen tracks, more or less in order.

five-stars