Review of The Silver Palate Cookbook: 25 Years Anniversary Edition by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

This is not a new cookbook, but there is a reason why it is has remained popular since it first appeared in 1982. As far as I’m concerned, the main reason is the cakes. Yes, the ratatouille is wonderful, and the Tarte Saint-Germain is delicious, but who offers cake recipes like this in these calorie conscious times? That is to say, it does not exactly seem like you could eat a lot of their cakes without showing some effects, but if you just exercise self-control (ha ha, a little humor there) you won’t regret it!

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For example, ordinarily, I wouldn’t pick banana cake out of a pile of cake. But their banana cake is moist and lush and covered in scrumptious cream cheese frosting. The same frosting goes on their carrot cake, which is the best I’ve ever had, even though I omit two of the ingredients, coconut and pineapple. (You can easily find the recipe from the cookbook for this popular cake online, such as at this site. And by the way, it calls for pureed carrots. As if I would use, and therefore have to wash, the food processor. I buy baby food carrots. That counts as pureed, right?)

Most of the recipes are accompanied by something extra: a color photo, a suggested menu, or a quote (“…I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread” from William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and my sentiments exactly. Well, maybe not the sharing part, but definitely the gingerbread part.) There are also intermittent sections with background information about food, such as an explanation of the different kinds of olive oil, or a review of the differences among various mushrooms or salad greens. Occasionally there are anecdotes by the authors about a recipe or advice on cooking techniques, such as cooking bacon or making the perfect omelet.

Evaluation: There is a wealth of information in this colorful cookbook, and everything I have tried in it has been outstanding.

Twenty-FifthAnniversary Edition Published by Workman Publishing, 2007

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Juneteenth For Mazie” by Floyd Cooper

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Mazie is a little girl who is always getting told “no” by her parents, which makes her grumpy. Her father tries to make her feel better by promising that the next day, she can be part of a celebration. He explains to her they will be commemorating Juneteenth Day, and tells her that this is the day the slaves in Texas got word of their freedom. They never forgot that wonderful day.

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He then adds that in spite of the emancipation of slaves, things weren’t perfect, and blacks still had to protest and march in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with whites. But blacks worked hard, excelled, and accomplished much (here he shows Barak Obama taking the oath of office). And now, he says to Mazie, you will be able to participate in the remembrance.

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Discussion: This book differs from the other book on Juneteenth Day reviewed earlier this month in that it explains the significance of this date in the course of the text, rather than just in end notes. But I think the storyline paints the history of blacks in America with a too-rosy brush. Given the current tension in the country over race relations, it seems a bit quixotic.

Evaluation: In spite of my slight discomfort with the way black history is presented by this story, I would still share this book with kids. I love Floyd Cooper – his illustrations are magical. I especially love the central role of a dad instead of the usual ubiquitous picture book mom. But I think if I were reading this to kids I would add some “annotations” to the text….

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Capstone Young Readers, 2015

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Review of “The Sky is Everywhere” by Jandy Nelson

Lennie, 17, lost her older sister four weeks ago, when Bailey died unexpectedly from a heart arrhythmia. The girls were especially close because their mother had abandoned them when Lennie was one, and they were raised by their grandmother and uncle. But their relationship was never equal; Bailey was the lead star, the race horse, and Lennie played the “companion pony,” “the side-kick sister, tucked into a corner of her shadow.” Lennie thought she was happy that way.

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Now that a month has passed, it is time for Lennie to return to school. She hasn’t been in touch with her friends; she has withdrawn from everyone, communicating only with her dead sister by leaving small notes and poems all around for Bailey perhaps to see from Heaven. But unexpectedly upon returning to school, hormones kick in for Lennie, and they do so with a vengeance. Lennie finds herself dealing with two attractions at once: her sister’s boyfriend Toby, and a new guy in school, Joe, who not only plays music with abandon and passion and courage, but has a personality to match, and a smile as big as the sun.

When Toby and Lennie are together, they feel like she somehow they are getting Bailey back. Lennie reflects:

Bailey loved both Toby and so much – he and I almost make up her whole heart, and maybe that’s it, what we were trying to do by being together, maybe we were trying to put her heart back together again.”

Then there’s Joe, who makes Lennie feel joy, and like she wants to be alive. But this feels like a betrayal to Bailey:

I don’t believe time heals. I don’t want it to. If I heal, doesn’t that mean I’ve accepted the world without her?”

Lennie, her family, and Toby, have to learn how to grieve and how to heal, and Joe has to decide if he can accept their choices.

Evaluation: Though the plot sounds like a very ordinary coming-of-age story, in fact this book is extraordinarily well done. It is full of poetry and music, passion and compassion, and endearing episodes of teenage angst and humor. This author is terrific, and the writing is exceptional. It is not a depressing book; rather, it is an exuberantly told story of self-discovery, renewal, and an affirmation of life.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 2010

Review of “The Swimmer” by Joakim Zander

This is a timely spy thriller about the use of, and abuse by, private contractors by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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The story begins in 1980 in Damascus, when the never-named main protagonist, “the swimmer,” escapes a deadly car bomb. We then go to 2013 and meet a character, Mahmoud Shammosh, who is working on a dissertation about “The Privatization of War” (i.e., the use of contractors) and who suddenly finds himself in great danger without knowing the reason for it. Subsequent chapters go back and forth in time as we figure out what is happening and why. This narrative device also enables the author to get in plenty of observations about the nature of torture that took place in these two countries, and the deleterious effects of “blowback” from U.S. involvement.

There are a number of other subplots that all are connected, but again, it takes some time before the reader knows just how they are linked. But a recurring theme establishes that given “human nature,” it isn’t difficult to find ways to compromise people in order to get them to do what you want. Or as The Swimmer observes, “a lie may be false, but truth is the real enemy.”

Discussion: The author has his characters contemplate many of the moral and political dilemmas that are still debated about U.S. involvement in this part of the world. For example, when The Swimmer is in Afghanistan aiding the Taliban (as the CIA did, with the goal of vitiating the Soviet effort there and thereby helping to destabilize the Soviet government), he wonders:

And then? When the Russians have left, when the images of Lenin have been burned and only the ruins and the dead remain? Will these timeless men build a country in the name of Allah? Will we allow them to forbid music theater, literature, and even ancient monuments? As they say they want to do? Do we prefer that to the ungodliness of communism? Into whose hands are we placing the fate of this world?”

The dénouement is interesting in the sense that it has a bit more nuance than one would expect from all that preceded it.

Evaluation: This thriller has a lot of suspense, and plenty of moral dilemmas that are unresolved but left for the reader to contemplate. Is it realistic? Perhaps. Certainly most of it is, according to the nonfiction tour de force by Steve Coll, Ghost Wars. That book, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, is a history of recent events in Afghanistan including the complex interrelationship among diplomats and spies from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States; the assassinations; the cover-ups; and the dirty dealing of all parties. I found Coll’s book more thrilling than this one, but for those who prefer to get their history through fiction, this book is not a bad choice. This Swedish novel has been a best-seller in Europe.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published in the U.S. by HarperCollins, 2015 (first published in Sweden in 2013)

Review of “The Siege Winter” by Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman

What fans of good historical fiction mysteries weren’t devastated to hear about the death of the writer Ariana Franklin (pen name of Diana Norman) in 2011? She did leave us a wonderful gift, however: a final novel, completed by her daughter Samantha Norman, and it is a very good work indeed.

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This book is not part of the series featuring the medical examiner Adelia Aguilar but is a standalone novel in the same time period, i.e., the mid-12th Century, and also set in England.

During this era, England was torn by a civil war between supporters of Stephen (grandson of William the Conqueror), and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, for the throne of England. Occupants of cathedrals as well as castles were forced to take sides. One stronghold in particular, the fictional Kenniford Castle, is desired by both sides in this story, because it is on the site of a key Thames crossing. The castle’s mistress is 16-year-old Maud, a ward of King Stephen. We first meet her when she is being forced to marry the much older, crass and barbaric John of Tewing, who arrived at the castle for the wedding with both his son and his mistress.

In alternate chapters, we also follow the fate of a young girl from the Fens who had gone out fetching fuel with her family. She was caught by a group of men led by a sadistic rapist and killer (also a monk), who had a penchant for red-headed children. Little Em was left for dead, but was found by Gwilherm de Vannes, a mercenary who had his horse stolen by the very men who ravaged Em.

Gwil nurses the girl back to health. She remembers nothing of the trauma that almost killed her, nor of her life before it, nor even her name. Gwil calls her Penda after a Pagan warlord. They cut her hair and disguise her as a boy, and Gwil teaches her to defend herself with a bow. The two travel through the countryside earning money by giving archery exhibitions. What Gwil doesn’t share with Penda is his determination to track down and destroy the monk who brutalized her. In addition, he suspects the monk may not be done yet with Penda, because when Gwil found her, she was clutching a valuable parchment that the monk would want to recover.

Events take a turn when Mathilda and two protectors, Alan and Christopher, stumble upon Gwil and Penda during a snowstorm, and take shelter with them. They beseech Gwil and Penda to help them get Mathilda to safety, and the five of them end up at Maud’s castle. Before long, the castle is besieged by the much larger and better armed forces of Stephen.

Discussion: The depiction of life in the 12th Century, especially the daily concerns of a castle chatelaine, is excellent. The growing relationship between Gwil and Penda is something you will want to hold onto; it is incredibly touching, as are the relationships between Maud and those she comes to love.

Evaluation: There is plenty of action and suspense in this book; a lot of good period background; and marvelous characterizations. Stock up on kleenex.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

February 15, 1564 – Beginning of Galileo and End of A Cramped Perspective

On this day in history, Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, Italy. In a number of carefully reasoned treatises, Galileo provided evidence that the earth was not in fact the center of the universe.

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei

He knocked epistemology, theology, history, as well as science on its head.

Much of the evidence provided by Galileo came from his use of the telescope. Many people are unaware that Galileo did not invent this instrument himself. A Dutch eyeglass maker, Hans Libbershey, was at least the first person to apply for a patent in 1608. But Galileo was a very early adopter, and improver, of the telescope.

Galileo's 1609 drawings made "from life" of the moon

Galileo’s 1609 drawings made “from life” of the moon

Both Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking have called Galileo the father of modern science. But he did more than that, by showing us that we must look beyond ourselves to have a full understanding of the universe and how it works. As author John Green often argues, one of the best ways to do this nowadays is by reading books.

Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom” by Angela Johnson

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If you don’t already know the story of Juneteenth Day, this book won’t enlighten you until you get to the author’s notes at the back of the book. By starting at the end, you will learn that at the conclusion of the Civil War, many slaves did not yet know they were now free. [The author errs in her note (although not in her timeline) by stating that slaves were free as of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. This was a wartime measure and in any event did not free all the slaves; some 800,000 slaves in the border states alone were unaffected by the measure. It was not until the return of the Confederate states to the Union (for which a renunciation of slavery was mandatory) and their acceptance of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in December of 1865, that slavery was officially abolished. In the meantime, however, Southern States remained under military government. Thus, the notification of June 19th was in the form of a military order.]

Even after slavery became illegal, slave owners in Texas did not volunteer the news to their slaves. It was only when Union Major General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 and made the announcement, that slaves understood they were officially free from bondage. [And often, as historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reports, slaves took advantage of their promised freedom at some peril.]

The author observes that awareness of the significance of this date increased during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and the date is now celebrated throughout the nation.

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The book takes us through a summer day for slaves on a Texas plantation, slaves who do not realize that “soon, it would all be different.” As the news spreads, more and more people gather and:

…we ate as a free people,
laughed as a free people,
and told stories as free people
on
into
the night.”

The little girl who is telling the story muses that in the morning, when they wake again, it will be a time that is “all different now.”

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Illustrator E.B. Lewis does a remarkable job with muted watercolors in capturing the range of emotions that slaves must have felt upon learning they were free, from shock to disbelief to hope to ineffable joy. He also makes great use of shadow and changes in light to show the rhythms of the day.

Evaluation: While the illustrations are lovely, I would have liked to have seen some background information made available before the end notes, which in any event are geared toward adults.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2014

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