Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Fine Dessert (Book Review)

Title: A Fine Dessert
Author: Emily Jenkins

Illustrator: Sophie Blackall
Publication: Schwartz & Wade Books, hardcover, 2015
Genre: Historical fiction/picture book
Plot: The subtitle of this book is “Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat,” and that was enough to make me want to read a story about Blackberry Fool.  It follows four unconnected families enjoying a dessert that takes a little work to prepare, beginning with a girl and her mother in 18th century England who pick blackberries together, skim the cream and beat it with a bundle of twigs to make whipped cream, strain the berries through muslin to get rid of the seeds, chill the concoction in an ice pit, and enjoy it with gusto.  The second family is in 19th century South Carolina: the meal is prepared by their slaves, who only get to lick the bowl clean. The third family is in 1910 Boston! They buy their blackberries at an “open-air market” and the mother has a recipe book, a rotary beater for the cream, and a practically modern wooden ice box .
Finally, a modern day family in San Diego appears – a father and son – who find the recipe online and use an electric mixer to make the cream.  They serve it to a group of multiethnic guests of all ages.

The constant is the simple dessert with steps that endure over the years (basically unchanged despite advancing technology), performed companionably by an adult and child together, and a child who licks the bowl at the end. Families enjoying dessert for centuries - the universality of this topic seems to have delighted every person who came across this delightful book.

Audience: Precocious children and their relatives, cookbook and social history fans, families who enjoy cooking together.
What I liked: What a charming book!  The text is understated, yet fully tells the story of each family.  The illustrations are perfect: showing historical detail and revealing humor.  See my favorite above where you can tell how delicious the last bite was.  Your mouth will be watering as you read along.

Historical detail: The author acknowledges that the book raises issues of slavery the person reading the book might want to explore.  She did not want to ignore the issue of slavery in 1810 but contrasts it to the more inclusive community shown in the contemporary family. I didn’t realize until I Googled Emily Jenkins that she is also bestselling author E. Lockhart, of whose YA books I am a big fan.  I once tweeted her to say I couldn’t wait for a new book – it was, of course, a figure of speech, but she very kindly responded by offering to mail me an advance reading copy.  I declined but was very grateful.* This book gives me new appreciation of her skill.

Adult readers will particularly enjoy the illustrator’s notes where she describes, among other things, trying out a bundle of twigs and researching what clothes the characters would have worn.  Her affectionate and painstaking attention to detail is what makes this book extraordinary.  She also shares the process on her blog and when I visited, I realized I have already enjoyed several books she illustrated. 
Source: I read about this book online and received it from a library in the Minuteman System. I plan to buy a copy for my niece.

*I am still a little annoyed with Books of Wonder: I couldn't attend E. Lockhart's booksigning for We Were Liars last May so went in person to order/request a signed copy.  My salesperson was abysmal: she hadn't heard of any of the books I wanted to buy.  She refused to leave instructions for the author to personalize We Were Liars (they did mail an autographed copy in time for my sister's birthday).  Sad you can't even do a favor for your former sales rep!  Porter Square Books and my friend Daniel at Boswell Book Company are always happy to oblige in this way.

Photos copyright to Random House.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Under the Same Blue Sky (Book Review)

Title: Under the Same Blue Sky
Author: Pamela Schoenewaldt
Publication: William Morrow trade paperback, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot:  From the USA Today bestselling author of When We Were Strangers and Swimming in the Moon comes an intricately drawn novel set against the turmoil of the Great War, as a young German-American woman explores the secrets of her past.

A shopkeeper’s daughter, Hazel Renner lives in the shadows of the Pittsburgh steel mills. She dreams of adventure, even as her immigrant parents push her toward a staid career. But in 1914, war seizes Europe and all their ambitions crumble. German-Americans are suddenly the enemy, “the Huns.” Hazel herself is an outsider in her own home when she learns the truth of her birth.

Desperate for escape, Hazel takes a teaching job in a seemingly tranquil farming community. But the idyll is cracked when she acquires a mysterious healing power—a gift that becomes a curse as the locals’ relentless demand for “miracles” leads to tragedy.

Hazel, determined to find answers, traces her own history back to a modern-day castle that could hold the truth about her past. There Hazel befriends the exiled, enigmatic German baron and forges a bond with the young gardener, Tom. But as America is shattered by war and Tom returns battered by shell-shock, Hazel’s healing talents alone will not be enough to protect those close to her, or to safeguard her dreams of love and belonging. She must reach inside to discover that sometimes the truth is not so far away, that the simplest of things can lead to her actual place in the world.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, those interested in World War I history, German Americans

What I liked: This is a very unusual book because it depicts an underrepresented part of American history, the pressures faced by German-Americans when World War I broke out.   Most of the books I’ve read about the immigrant experience in the United States may show struggles but end triumphantly.   Schoenewaldt reveals the real struggles this hardworking German couple has assimilating and doesn't promise blue skies (except in the title): Johannes Renner is an industrious shopkeeper while his wife, a gifted cook, tries to create the perfect home and raises her daughter with the belief that Hazel can achieve anything.  However, the Renners’ place in the community is brutally rejected when their neighbors become unthinkingly patriotic (and, as we know, Americans continue to reject those who are different).  Betsy-Tacy fans will remember how Tib Muller, about the same age as Hazel, handles news of the war:

Rocky drew on his pipe.... “We’re going to be in this war if [Wilson] doesn’t keep his head.”

Tib put down the coffee pot from which she was refilling cups.

“Don’t you mean,” she asked, “that we’re going to be in it if the Kaiser doesn’t stop sinking our ships?”

Rocky looked as surprised as though a canary had pecked him.

“See here!” he said. “What kind of talk is that from a girl named Muller?”

Tib’s eyes darkened.  “It’s American talk,” she answered.

The Renners’ experience in war-torn Pittsburgh and New Jersey and how they survive the war is very absorbing, and provides an interesting contrast to Maud Hart Lovelace’s portrayal of the same time frame in Minneapolis.

What I dislikedWhile well worth reading, this was a very dark story full of melancholy characters and death.  Hazel’s healing powers were too mysterious for me; I couldn’t grasp where they came from or why they disappeared.  I also didn’t understand how Hazel could possibly return to a community that had treated her like a witch and hurt her friend.   And although I admired the author for not providing a conventional happy ending, I found Tom’s lasting shellshock very depressing, albeit realistic.
Source: I received Under the Same Blue Sky from TLC Book Tours and enjoyed it.  I invite you to stop by the tour to read other reviews of this book.

Tuesday, May 5th: The Book Binder’s Daughter
Thursday, May 7th: Good Girl Gone Redneck
Thursday, May 7th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Friday, May 8th: 100 Pages a Day … Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Tuesday, May 12th: Lavish Bookshelf
Wednesday, May 13th: Kritters Ramblings
Friday, May 15th: Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, May 18th: Ageless Pages Reviews
Tuesday, May 19th: Raven Haired Girl
Wednesday, May 20th: Broken Teepee
Tuesday, May 26th: West Metro Mommy
Thursday, May 28th: Seaside Book Nook
Monday, June 8th: Mom’s Small Victories

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Anne Pecheux Lang

Today would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday.  Sadly, she died on March 9, 2015, a little more than six weeks short of that milestone. 
Anne in Kent, Connecticut, around 1995
As many of you have heard, Anne Pollard Pecheux was an attractive and headstrong young woman from Newburgh, New York.  Her father was married twice, and Anne was the fourth of seven children, and the first child of his second wife.   My great-grandfather, Henry Pecheux, was born in 1872, and played baseball at Notre Dame for one year (probably about 1890 – the sport obtained official varsity status in 1892) before family finances forced him to return home.  Providing for a large family during the Depression was incredibly stressful.  My grandmother has told me how his accounting business went under and he worked a variety of part-time jobs to stay afloat.  His love of history and of books was something he shared with his children and grandchildren, bringing home the Oz books which he read aloud and everyone enjoyed.  Granny loved book 3 in the series, Ozma of Oz, and had a jeweled belt pretended had belonged to the Nome King – nothing like bossing your younger sister around with a magic belt.

Anne’s mother, Helena Pollard, was an orphan brought up by the family matriarch whom everyone called Auntie.  Auntie, a widow, brought up Helena, called Nellie, as well as her brother, and two other nieces, Anna and Josie.  The cousins remained close.  Anna became a successful legal secretary in Manhattan, and it was her generosity in paying for Barnard College that changed my grandmother’s life.   The dorms at Barnard were so empty due to the Depression that everyone got a single but Granny made several lifelong friends and partied enthusiastically with the likes of Thomas Merton.  She was very bright but later admitted she did not apply herself in the classroom; instead becoming involved with various political causes.

During her senior year, she and her friends decided to take a course at Columbia on the History of Music.  Granny was instantly intrigued with the handsome young Hungarian professor, a rising star in musicology who had been an Olympic rower in the 1924 Olympics in Paris before he came to the United States. He, while less impulsive, told a colleague on the first day of the semester that there had been someone very interesting in his class.  The way I always heard the story, my bold grandmother bought concert tickets to Mahler (if she had known him better, she would have realized he disliked Mahler), approached him after class, and invited him to go with her.  He said no, and she was crushed.  She stopped going to class until he telephoned her dorm and said she wouldn't graduate unless she returned to class.  She came back with her friends but instead of sitting in the front and batting their eyelashes they sat in the back of the classroom and glared at him.  But after he posted the final grades he called her and said, "Now that you aren't my student, I would like to take you to a concert."   That was June and they were married on August 1.  Paul Henry Lang continued as a professor of musicology at Columbia until he retired and they went on to have four children, of whom my mother is the eldest.  They were married for fifty-five years.
Anne and Paul
Granny was passionate about many things, particularly animals, politics, and the Catholic Church (and not always in that order).  She always loved New York City although she never lived there again after college and the first year or two of her marriage.  She and my grandfather lived in various places but my favorite was their house in Chappaqua, New York.  It had begun life as Horace Greeley’s barn and had been converted to a residence by his daughter (the Greeley connection was especially suitable because he was the legendary editor of the New York Herald Tribune and later my grandfather was the music critic for the Tribune).  My grandfather turned Gabrielle Greeley’s ballroom into a massive library, with books on all four sides, a grand piano, a bearskin rug, and a desk made out of a door.  When I was sent as a child to say goodnight, I would find him at the opposite end of the long room in deep thought, smoking a pipe like Gandalf.   He wrote his books in that library and Granny edited them.  He dedicated Music in Western Civilization to her: it says, “To Anne, who Watched, Guided, Waited, and Understood,” and is still a Norton bestseller.

As the eldest grandchild, I had a special bond with my grandmother, nicknaming her Bemama when I was little, and then graduating to “Granny” which she hated.  “Call me Grand-mère or Nonna,” she insisted but it was too hard to break the habit.  She was a magical figure in my childhood: the source of great presents and endless bags of M&Ms, and she always seemed to be laughing.  Although she had a penchant for arguments, she was always extremely generous to family and friends alike: later helping me with the down payment of my Upper East Side apartment (although she disagreed about where I should put the dining room table and never stopped telling me it was in the wrong place) and once offering to buy “church shoes” for every altar server in her Kent, Connecticut church because she was afraid their parents could only afford the sneakers she found inappropriate (she was hurt when the priest turned down her offer). She had a wonderful sense of style and we always felt that she could have been a very successful interior designer had she sought a career.
Baby Constance on "Auntie's" 100th Birthday
Even in her last months, Granny remained very interested in what was going on with her family, wondering if my brother Peter had met Pope Francis yet, expressing satisfaction when I quit my unpleasant job in December (“Take that, Bruce!” she said triumphantly, as if she knew my difficult boss, rather than had listened sympathetically for two years), and asking for extra copies of my grandfather’s books and even my father’s book so she could bestow them on various people she was convinced were longing to read them (whether they were or not).  Although a poor recovery from a broken hip made the past year painful and she resented not feeling well enough to attend Mass, she was glad to see every visitor and especially appreciated the February visit of Peter with her great-grandchildren from Italy.
Anne with her youngest great-grandson, Francis Xavier, in  2014
We miss you, Granny!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Touch of Stardust (Book Review)

Title: A Touch of Stardust
Author: Kate Alcott
Publication: Doubleday hardcover, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 1930s Hollywood
Plot:  When Julie Crawford arrives in Hollywood, fresh from Smith, she is just in time to witness the “burning of Atlanta” scene staged by David O. Selznick on the Gone with the Wind set – and she is hooked on show business albeit intimidated by the great man.  In a refreshing twist, Julie is not a wannabe actress but an aspiring screenwriter.  And on her first day, she also encounters legendary actress Carole Lombard – like Julie, from Fort Wayne, Indian – who is romantically involved with Clark Gable.  Julie also meets Andy Weinstein, Selznick’s right hand man.  Lombard gives Julie a job as her assistant, which gives Julie a front row seat at the glamorous life of Hollywood stardom.  And as Julie finds her place in the movie world, her friendship with Andy becomes something more.

Audience:  Historical fiction readers, readers who love old movies, GWTW fanatics
What I liked: Alcott does a fabulous job of bringing the reader into the magical world of Gone with the Wind.  Even casual fans know about the search for the perfect actress to play Scarlet but it’s even better when you feel you’re yards away when lovely Vivien Leigh visits the movie set and wills Selznick to choose her so she can be close to Laurence Olivier.  Telling the making of the movie story from the perspective of a bright young woman, new in town, is a clever technique.  We identify sufficiently with Julie to want her to succeed but it’s the glimpses of Lombard and Gable’s romance and of Vivien Leigh and the behind the scenes filming of GWTW that make this book impossible to put down. 

I especially liked how Alcott made Lombard so appealing in this book.  I wonder if she really was helpful to younger women trying to make their mark in Hollywood.  My admittedly limited knowledge of her indicated only that she was bawdy and died young.

I’ve had my eye on this author for a while but hadn’t got around to reading her earlier books.  She credits her husband, descended from Hollywood’s Mankiewicz family, with telling her stories about this era, and she even sets one scene at the home of writer Herman Mankiewicz. 

Readers who want to know more about the making of Gone with the Wind should take a look at The Making of Gone with the Wind by Steve Wilson.

What I disliked: Julie’s and Andy’s romance is not as interesting as Lombard and Gable’s.  It reminded me of something Susanna Kearsley mentioned at a recent reading, which is that when she writes a back and forth novel, she intends for the contemporary couple to be more of a foil for the historical.  Here, while I liked Julie’s character and enjoyed learning about her travails trying to make a living as a screenwriter and persuading her conservative parents not to drag her back to Indiana, I was much more interested what her life revealed about the movie.  Alcott acknowledges this, providing an epilogue describing what happened to the actors and stating that Julie is meant to be the Everywoman “who strikes out with a small arsenal of choices” and uses them to achieve her goals.  I did wonder if a nice girl from Smith would have been so quick to get physically involved even if Andy is strikingly handsome and kind. 

Andy’s depiction of the anti-Semitism in Hollywood seemed authentic and accurate, although it distracted from the movie, which I was more interested in reading about.

Source: I read pre-pub reviews and put this on reserve from the library, and it duly appeared several months later. Highly recommended. 4 1/2 stars.