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review 2017-08-06 06:16
If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't)
If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't) - Betty White

I couldn't get this in audio here in Australia - which was my first choice - but I did run across a used copy of the hardcover at a sale, so I was finally able to read this.


It's a very fast read, made up of individual essays covering what is, I'm guessing, the most popular topics she's asked about.  Her stories regarding her career and her celebrity were interesting and sometimes laugh out loud funny, but I was really in it for the stories about her involvement with animals.  I was not disappointed.


I admit Betty White didn't interest me one way or the other until she became the fully employed actress in her 80s that she is (was - she's in her 90s now); she has become the poster woman, along with my mom, Betty White's contemporary, for how to age with grace and independence.  I hope I'm lucky enough to have my mom's health and Ms. White's humour and enthusiasm for life when (if) I hit my 80th decade and beyond.

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review 2017-07-31 02:10
Take the Cannoli
Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World - Sarah Vowell

A collection of Vowell's essays culled from several magazine/newspaper columns and This American Life, this is one of those books that is difficult for me to rate.


On the one hand, I found her dry humour entertaining, but on the other, I'm not a fan of cynicism in general, and Vowell's weaponised form often taxed my patience.  


She and I are the same age, but our childhoods did not share much in the way of common experiences, and we definitely don't share a common political view.  I was, in fact, incredulous that she referred to perjury on the part of a president as a "fib".  But we do share a deep, abiding love for our country even when it disappoints and horrifies us.


The essays I connected with, or enjoyed most were the ones where she was able to put her disaffected persona to the side (or at least mute it) and talk about those experiences common to most everybody: battles with insomnia, her experiences at the rock and roll camp, learning to drive.  There's an essay about Chicago that is brilliant and even though I think she let herself get in her own way, her piece on the Trail of Tears was devastating and moving.


So even though I can't say I loved this work, it's only because I was unable to find enough common ground to do so.  But I do think Vowell is an excellent writer and I'd happily read more of her work; she has a book on famous assassinations I've had my eye on for some time now that I'm definitely going to hunt down.


I read this book for my final Free Friday read; it was 209 pages.

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review 2017-07-05 06:16
Lincoln as I Knew Him
Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes, and Revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies - Harold Holzer

My problem with history books, generally speaking, until recently, was the most of them tended to focus on statistics in one form or another (dates, battles, treaties, laws, etc) and very rarely about the people, the culture.  One without the other is history without context and as such either put me to sleep or went in one ear and out the other.


But I've always had more than a bit of hero worship for Abraham Lincoln.  Just looking at his portraits, there is something compelling to his visage, something that implies the hidden depths are deep indeed.


So when I heard about this book, it sounded like just the thing I was looking for: mostly contemporaneous anecdotes of Lincoln, told by those that loved him, worked with him, or worked for him - and a few by those that worked against him.  Short of asking Lincoln's cat what he thought of him, I can think of no better way of really learning the true quality of the man himself than from what his friends and opponents thought of him.


Holzer puts together a slim but comprehensive volume of such anecdotes, groups by relationship to Lincoln: family, friends, press, etc.  In the introduction and at the end in the author's notes he is clear that the collection is but a drop in the bucket, but is representative of the whole, and that he has left each alone save for editing for readability (i.e. swapping em dashes for periods to comply with modern grammar).


By far the most eloquent of the pieces, and likely my favourites on first reflection, are those written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.  Beecher Stowe for her beautiful writing, Truth for her passion and grace, and Douglass for his honesty.  My least favourite, although Holzer gets credit for avoiding bias, are two excerpts from John Wilkes Booth; it brings balance to the work, but feels blasphemous somehow, to include his assassin's memories.


The number one thing in common amongst all these anecdotes - whether the writer admired or reviled Lincoln: that he was honest, kind and moral.   How many historical figures have the respect of their detractors?  


I read this for the Optional 4th of July Main Street Read for space #13.  Pages: 262

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review 2017-05-17 09:40
Of Cats and Men
Of Cats and Men: Profiles of History's Great Cat-Loving Artists, Writers, Thinkers, and Statesmen - Sam Kalda

The illustrations save this book.  It's a really attractive books and the illustrations and drawings are colourful and joyful.


The writing is... so-so.  First, it's solidly aimed at men: Kalda doesn't even pretend that women might read this, and he often breaks the fourth wall to talk to the reader man-to-man about the hidden manliness of preferring cats over dogs.  Kalda is an illustrator by profession, and perhaps that accounts for writing that attempts to be chatty and witty but fails just short so that there are moments that feel awkward.


The profiles don't really share anything new or even biographically informative, but they are somewhat interesting.  Nonetheless, as I said, the illustrations and quote typography are the thing here.  The book shines from this perspective, which is why my rating ends up at 4 stars.

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review 2017-05-09 11:25
Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings, and Life
Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings, and Life - Kate McDermott,Andrew Scrivani

Technically, I have not yet read this book - at least not the narrative part.  But after Book Cupidity wrote about her fabulous experience with one of the pie recipes (complete with amazing drool-worthy pictures of her pie), and Whiskey in the Jar followed up with a Tasty Tuesday challenge and her favourite Pop Tart recipe, reading the narrative was not my primary concern.


I bought this book on Thursday last week with the intent of making the dough and using it for the pop tart recipe on Sunday.  Now, you have to understand that I am not a cook - I lack any instinct for food beyond the basic need to not starve - so when I am forced to cook, I need exact details; don't give me that 'use your instincts' crap - I need exact measurements, preferably out to at least 2 decimal places. 


Needless to say, I didn't go into this with the zen attitude that the author insists is necessary for successful pie, but I did go into it thinking 'screw it - if I screw up, I'll still eat it'.  And then I made two batches of the basic all-butter dough, questioning myself all the way through.  The first batch grew up to be brown sugar cinnamon pop tarts, without frosting because I don't like frosting and I used the scraps to make the pinwheels that McDermott includes in this book.  Those may or may not have been my dinner on Sunday night.  



They were good - so much flakier than I expected them to be.  I took one to work yesterday and made a right proper mess of my desk; like eating a croissant, there were flakes everywhere. My only complaint about the pop tart recipe was that there was a ton of the filling left over, but I stuck it in a jar and figured I'd have it ready made for future pop tarts.


Today (totally a coincidence, btw, that it is Tuesday) I came home from work and took one of the extra discs of dough out to make McDermott's Rustic Tart for dessert tonight.  I had intended to make an apple pie until I saw this recipe, which looked easier and made two smaller tarts, which meant I could halve the recipe; a perfect size for just MT and myself.  Because while I know from experience that MT and I can polish off a whole pie by ourselves, it always ends in guilt and recriminations.


I was also making a cottage pie for dinner, so I didn't have a lot of time.  This is another reason I was drawn to the Rustic Tart recipe - McDermott included an option to use fresh fruit instead of a more complicated fruit pie filling.  I cut up a Granny Smith, a Golden Delicious, and a Royal Gala, rolled out one disc of dough and piled all the fruit in the middle.  McDermott calls for a 1/4 cup of sugar sprinkled over the top with a small dusting of nutmeg, but I had a brain storm:  left over pop tart filling!!  It's brown sugar and it's cinnamon (a bit of flour too but I figured that would keep everything from bubbling out of control) and why the hell not?  So, see, I was meant to have extra pop tart filling left over.  I added a small sprinkling of nutmeg, as suggested, and then folded the dough over.  I knew if I failed at everything else, I totally nailed rustic.



After refrigerating it for a couple of hours, I did the egg wash and sprinkled it with a last dusting of sugar, but I felt fancy and dug out my sparkly sugar I use for Christmas cookies.  


How much does that look like a pretzel?  But it smelled amazing.



I have to admit, these last pictures were taken with less care - I was hungry and I wanted to eat my pie!  A small drizzle of cream and... pretty good if I do say so myself.  The crust could probably have been a bit more tender, and I could have used more fruit, given the amount of shrinkage, but look at those flakes - I've never baked anything that's flaked like that before!!  MT said he was too stuffed to have any, while almost simultaneously cutting himself first one, then a second, slice.  He's a hard one to impress, so I'm pretty happy all around with this first effort, and the pop tart filling with the apples worked - for no muss, no fuss, I'd say you can't go wrong with it.


So the TL;DR version is this:  if you like pie, go buy the book.  It's worth every penny (and I bought this in Australia, so believe you me, I paid through the nose for this book and it's still worth every penny).  Then, go check out the pop tart recipe that Whiskey In the Jar links to and have fun!

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