From the Top Ten Books of 2020

Nothing is quite the same this Christmas.  I tried an Iced Gingerbread energy bar with a glass of cartoned egg nog for breakfast.  The bar smelled somewhat like what I remember gingerbread did, but the taste was just like any old energy bar – a little like cardboard.  The egg nog could have used some rum to perk up the flavor, and a little whipped cream on top – but I am out of both.  Substitution is the next new normal as the year grudgingly tries to finish with snow falling on the East Coast, and virtual classrooms calling for a virtual snow day.

Although I still have a few hard cover books on my shelf I have not read, I received a “skip-the-line” offer from Libby, the library’s online manager; the online library is my latest substitution. Without the availability of the hallowed halls with stacks of books and timeless opportunities for roaming, the ebook library must suffice.  With only four days left and not a lot of motivation, I’m not sure I will finish Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible. The editors of the New York Times Book Review chose it as one of the ten best books of 2020, so I should try.

“In Millet’s latest novel, a bevy of kids and their middle-aged parents convene for the summer at a country house in America’s Northeast. While the grown-ups indulge (pills, benders, bed-hopping), the kids, disaffected teenagers and their parentally neglected younger siblings, look on with mounting disgust. But what begins as generational comedy soon takes a darker turn, as climate collapse and societal breakdown encroach. The ensuing chaos is underscored by scenes and symbols repurposed from the Bible — a man on a blowup raft among the reeds, animals rescued from a deluge into the back of a van, a baby born in a manger. With an unfailingly light touch, Millet delivers a wry fable about climate change, imbuing foundational myths with new meaning and, finally, hope.”

The other nine on the list included only two I plan to read, when Libby sends an alert:

  1. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet
  2. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half
  3. Ayad Ahktar’s Homeland Elegies
  4. James McBride’s Deacon King Kong
  5. Barack Obama’s A Promised Land
  6. Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us
  7. James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America
  8. Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road
  9. Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley

Have you read any on this top ten list?

 

 

 

Solutions and Other Problems

Having finally finished Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe (taking almost as long as reading The Splendid and the Vile), I found myself happily ensconced in an easier path to philosophical thinking with Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems.  If you have read her first book, Hyperbole and a Half, you will recognize her cartoonish characters combined with serious thinking. I like books with pictures but tend to shy away from graphic novels. Brosh, on the other hand, offers her heavy insight mixed with a light touch.  It was easy to transfer Bakewell’s evaluation of Sartre to Brosh’s world of grimly smiling characters.

Brosh’s book is full of her own story as she navigates through her sister’s suicide and her traumatic health scare and includes a plethora of sublime and funny vignettes from childhood through her thirty year old self (notice I did not say adulthood). She draws herself as a frog-eyed and neckless stick figure with a blonde shark fin of a ponytail protruding from her head.   She explains why:

“There are a lot of distracting things about humans,” she says. “There are ways we’ve learned to interpret each other, based on all these outside clues. Drawing myself in this spastic, animalistic way allows me to communicate more directly about the things I’m trying to talk about without using this confusing [human] vehicle as a medium.”

Her style works to simultaneously provoke humor and pathos, drawing the reader into funny situations with thoughtful outcomes. Brosh adds her quirky art to a humorous angst reminiscent of David Sedaris talking about his childhood or his favorite pants. Allie Brosh transforms simple stories about her cat, her childhood, and her anxiety into humorous lessons. Some are just laugh out loud funny but others will have you connecting to your own experiences.

Best of all, by exposing her own idiosyncracies, worries, and insecurities, she gives the reader the freedom to admit to some too, and, in the end, become your own best friend. Maybe Solutions and Other Problems was not written to draw us out of our social distancing doldrums in a pandemic, but reading the book sure does a good job of it.

The last line in the book:

Because nobody should have to feel like a pointless little weirdo alone.   Especially if they are.

 

 

Save Me the Plums

Reading Ruth Reichl’s account as editor of Gourmet magazine made me happy and hungry. With her usual flair, Reichl sails through her ten years at the prestigious food magazine, describing food so delicious you can almost smell and taste it.

Following the arc from learning the ropes, wondering if the job is too challenging, to the inevitable highs of success with a staff as enthusiastic as she is about bringing culinary delights to the masses, Reichl talks about her staff as collaborators and friends in a delightful journey to experiment and explore food. Of course, the arc ultimately turns down during the recession with budget cuts and gleaning of staff, eventually causing the demise of the revered magazine of seventy years in the Conde Nast warehouse. With 48 hours notice, she and her staff lost their jobs.

Throughout her story, Reichl is witty and charming, with flashes of down to earth philosophy as she manages her fairy tale career with family obligations. I laughed along with her when she described some of the publishing quirks in the foodie business, and would have been glad to have been counted as one of her friends. People she did not like, however, (she brooked no enemies) were given short shrift; sometimes you could almost see her making a face behind their backs.

I’ve read several of her books – my favorite is Garlic and Sapphires – and each has its own flavor, but Save Me the Plums may have been a catharsis, helping her transition from a whirlwind life of luxury into forced early retirement and a return to the normal life. Reichl always makes me laugh but this book offered a story of relatable issues any career mom would identify. Although my career had nothing to do with food, I could relate as she learned to be a leader, overseeing a staff for the first time as she came into her own, creating programs lauded and appreciated. The sudden ending was fretful but we all survive and often thrive.

Since the end of Gourmet magazine in 2009, Reichl has kept busy cooking in her upstate New York kitchen, and writing books: her first fiction book – Delicious!, a cookbook – My Kitchen Year, and a tribute to her mother in Not Becoming My Mother. Her writing pops up in assorted publications, and in a recent article for Real Simple magazine her tart humor described the perfect kitchen.  “Forget all the appliances you think you need.  Just turn your kitchen into a space you love…I do have a dishwasher, but the truth is I wish I didn’t…” As always, she offers real suggestions with a dollop of wry humor.

Reichl included several Gourmet recipes in Save Me the Plums, but I only copied and tried one – the one with chocolate, of course. Ruth says it tastes best with Scharffen Berger chocolate but I couldn’t find any; trust me, it’s still great with any good grade chocolate (just stay away from Dutch processed). The cake is a YAFI (You Asked for It) from one of Gourmet’s issues – easy to make and tastes amazing.

I wish I had thought to take a picture but we scarfed it up pretty quickly.  Besides, in a recent interview Reichl says she does not like the current practice of eaters taking pictures of the food.  “You distance yourself from the food as soon as you take a picture – better to experience it and enjoy it.”

I’m sure she would be happy if you would try making it too – here’s the recipe: 

Jeweled Chocolate Cake

Ingredients:

  • 3 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder, plus more for dusting pan but not Dutch process
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup neutral vegetable oil
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter a deep 9 inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust it with cocoa powder.

Melt the chocolate with the cocoa, butter, oil, and water over low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar.

Cool completely, then whisk in the eggs, one at a time.

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk into the chocolate mixture. Shake the buttermilk well, measure, and stir that in.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake on the middle shelf for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out, peel the parchment from the bottom and allow to cool completely.

Praline Topping:

  • 1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
  • 1/4 cup blanched hazelnuts (I substituted chopped pecans)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar

Toast the nuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil without stirring until it begins to darken, swirling until mixture turns a deep gold. Happens fast – so stay with it or it will burn.

Remove from heat and stir in nuts. Pour onto baking sheet lined with parchment, spreading evenly. Allow to cool completely. Then, break into pieces and put into a plastic bag, smashing with a rolling pin (or bottom of a heavy glass) until you have crushed pieces to sprinkle over the frosting.

Frosting 

  • Mix 2 tablespoons of sugar into a cup of mascarpone.
  • Spread on the cooled cake and heap praline bits on top.

 

 

 

A Letter to Ruth Reichl

Dear Ruth,

Thank you, Ruth Reichl, for returning to writing your memoirs.  Although I enjoyed your novel, Delicious! and tried the recipe in the back of the book for gingerbread cake, I missed your real life.  I laughed so hard at your disguises in Garlic and Sapphires and felt so nostalgic when reading Comfort Me with Apples.  I missed your life commentary with funny asides and endearing messy foibles.

9781400069996  Now you are back with Save Me the Plums – just when I need motivation to read again.  I look forward to your tale about your adventures with one of my favorite defunct magazines – Gourmet (I miss reading it too.)

Kate Betts teased me with her review yesterday in the Sunday New York Times, calling it “a poignant and hilarious account.”   She mentions recipes – oh joy!  I may have to eat chocolate cake while reading.

I am off to find your book….

Related Review:  Delicious!

 

What is Bill Gates Reading?

UnknownI’d forgotten I’d signed up for the Bill Gates Newsletter; wisely he doesn’t send many – to me anyway.  I skipped his end of the year Christmas summary of his year; I get enough of those from people I actually know – but his list of five books included suggestions I liked.

Among the books he claimed he couldn’t put down this year was Educated by Tara Westover.  I’ve avoided this book as I do most memoirs, especially  those with a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” focus.  This is the third time the book has been recommended.  First, I ignored a good friend’s recommendation to read it; second, when a book club identified it, I groaned; finally, here is Bill, claiming “I never thought I’d relate to a story about growing up in a Mormon survivalist household, but she’s such a good writer that she got me to reflect on my own life while reading about her extreme childhood.  Melinda and I loved this memoir of a young woman whose thirst for learning was so strong that she ended up getting a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.”

Three’s a charm, so I’ve ordered the book from the library.

Next on Bill’s list was 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.  He had me at “if 2018 has left you overwhelmed by the state of the world, 21 Lessons offers a helpful framework for processing the news and thinking about the challenges we face.”  I probably should have read this book yesterday – or as soon as the recent President was elected.  I’ve ordered this from the library too.

Finally, I found one book I could download immediately to my Audible account. It seemed appropriate to listen to Andy Puddicombe’s The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness.  Bill says he and Melinda have “gotten really into meditation lately.”  I downloaded the Calm app to my phone with good intentions, but usually only remember to turn it on when loud noise outside my window late at night is keeping me awake.  Calm has “bedtime stories” to drown out the party clamor.  Bill’s note that the book has “Puddicombe’s personal journey from a university student to a Buddhist monk…” caught my interest.

The other two books on Bill’s list of five did not interest me now, but maybe they will you:  Army of None by Paul Scharre, “a thought=provoking look at A-1 warfare,”  and Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, “…the rise and fall of Theranos.”

No fiction on the list;  I wonder if Bill ever reads any.