Sunday, September 27, 2009

TTYL by Lauren Myracle

Banned books week!

I was inspired by a display at my library to include TTYL by Lauren Myracle. All I knew about this book was that it was a book written in IMs (so I guess it's epistolary fiction) and that it must have offended someone at some point. Also, the author has written a series of juvenile books that my daughters enjoy (Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen); at some point, they're going to want to read another book by this author, so I thought I'd better check it out first.

A small note of explanation regarding banned books: many of the books found on banned books lists haven't actually been banned, just challenged, which is slightly different. Challenged means that someone has gotten his or her knickers in a twist about a book and complained about it to a library or school; banned means that the book has been successfully removed by said challengers. Many, many books are challenged unsuccessfully. And hooray to all the librarians, teachers, and school administrators for standing up for literary freedom. Frequently, the book-challengers have never even read the books in question. Should I be shocked? I know I shouldn't, but it never ceases to amaze me that people jump on the banned-books bandwagon without completing the entire literary work.

OK, rant over. Back to the review.

TTYL is the story of Zoe, Maddie, and Angela, three 10th graders in suburban Atlanta. The entire story is told in the form of Instant Messages. The book was published in 2002, but I'm sure if it had been written today it would have been all text messages or tweets, so it might have been even more difficult to read for an adult. I admit it, I am a texting snob. I do text, but I can't help it, I write in complete sentences, and I do punctuate and capitalize. Unless I'm being ironic. I did find it really irritating that these girls can have these long conversations but can't take the time to write out the word "you," "you're," and "night." Ironically, I read this book on National Punctuation Day.

However, if you can get past the grammar and IM-speak, this is actually a decent story. I did sometimes get the characters confused (the characters are differentiated by font and typeface color, which helped), but I was sucked into the story pretty quickly. Basically, the girls are dealing with the usual 10th grade stuff: cliques, crushes, strict parents, getting a driver's license. The girls are worried that their friendship will suffer from the usual growing-up high school angst. However, these girls have some serious problems that emerge: shy Zoe gets a lot of attention from an English teacher that attends her church, and things get a little nebulous. Maddie's new hip friend posts something really embarassing about her on the Internet -- these are real problems that could happen to a lot of kids, and teen readers should be aware of them.

I knew this book was banned/challenged because of the language and adult content, but some of it really did surprise me. In fairness, [mild spoiler alert!] the girls are just talking, no action. It really isn't any raunchier than most of the episodes of Sex and the City, but those characters are thirtysomething women, not teenagers. On the one hand, I'm well aware that teenagers talk like this all the time, so it's probably fairly realistic talk. I know teenagers are curious about sex, but some of it did make me pretty uncomfortable. It's a little icky.

Also, I do think that the sexual content of the book detracts from some good material about the more serious issues. Yes, the girls are somewhat stereotyped -- Angela is the pretty girl, Zoe is the good, religious girl, Maddie is the wild party animal -- but there are some topics included that parents should discuss with their kids.
Of course, this is probably just ironic because the parents who should discuss this stuff with their kids are the ones who aren't paying attention to what their children read anyway. Like the typical parents in most YA lit, the parents in this book seem to be clueless and uncaring; for example, there's a subplot about the girls planning a weekend camping trip virtually unsupervised. Who are these idiots? In this day and age when most parents won't let their kids walk to soccer practice unsupervised, how is it possible that they'd allow this? It is implied that Maddie's father has a drinking problem -- these are the parents that give their newly licensed daughter a car and let her drive around at all hours of the day and night. No wonder naked videos of this girl are posted on the Internet.

Basically, I'd really recommend this book for parents of teenagers to read -- they really need to be aware of what's going on with high schoolers, and talk with them about it. Maybe that's the underlying message that most librarians (and teachers, probably) want to pass on: pay attention to what your kids are reading, and why they're reading it. Don't stick your head in the sand and pretend that if you ban books like this, kids won't read them. Nothing will make a kid want to read something more than telling them that it's bad and that they shouldn't. I'd like to pretend that my twelve year old daughter won't want to read books like this, but she probably will. Hopefully when that time comes we can even talk about it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Scones for Jane Austen

Finally, after months, actually years, of drought in south Texas, we have rain. Lots and lots of rain. Weeks and weeks of rain. (But technically, the drought's not over yet). If the summer hadn't been so horribly long, hot, and dry, I'd hate it. But for now I am enjoying it, which brings me to thoughts of rainy England. What better way to spend a rainy day but watching a Jane Austen DVD, drinking tea, and eating scones? (OK, my husband prefers football and IPA, but this is not his blog).

If I was really organized, I'd find an appropriate recipe to go with every book review. But I like reading more than I like baking, and that would be a lot of recipes, so I'd probably end up writing less book reviews. Whenever possible, though, I will try to tie them together. Today I do get to combine one of my favorite foods with one of my favorite authors. The combination of Emma, my upcoming trip to the Jane Austen Society meeting, and a viewing of Pride and Prejudice (1980 BBC miniseries) inspired me to make some scones.

Jane Austen really doesn't mention food very often in her books. But, being British, there's a lot of tea drinking, and when I think of tea and English literature, I think of lovely afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, scones, and little desserts, all beautifully served on paper doilies on one of those three-tiered servers. So, scones it shall be.

Of course, if you really want to be historically accurate, you could get a copy of The Jane Austen Cookbook, researched and written by a food historian and a Jane Austen scholar. This may well be a future purchase --we're having a Jane Austen party in December for one of my library's book groups, so you may see some authentic Regency period recipes here in the future. Sadly, this would not include my beloved scones, since baking powder wasn't invented until about 1859 (see The Food Timeline for more information. A great website, I have spent hours surfing there). And I am convinced that, had baking powder been invented 50 years earlier, Jane Austen, and her heroines, would absolutely have eaten lots of scones, so make a cup of Earl Grey and eat them while you read (or watch) the works of Jane Austen, with pleasure.

Here's one of my favorite scone recipes, adapted from The New York Times Cookbook:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

3 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

5 TB unsalted butter, chilled (Use UNSALTED butter -- otherwise, you'll have salty scones)

about 2/3 cup whole milk

1 egg, beaten

Additional 1 egg, for glazing, and additional white sugar for topping.

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees -- if your oven runs hot like mine, adjust it back to 400.

2. Mix the dry ingredients together with a whisk (the recipe says to sift them, but I've never bothered. Whisking will do, honestly.)

3. Cut the butter into small pieces and add them to the flour mixture. Using a pastry blender, or two butter knives, keep cutting the butter into smaller and smaller pieces, while coating with the flour, until it looks like wet sand. If you want to add currents or other mix-ins, now is the time. I'm not fond of raisins and such but dried cranberries are nice (also nice if you add a little grated orange rind). Chocolate chunks are decadent -- see, I did manage to make this a chocolate recipe!)

4. Beat the egg, add it to the dry ingredients and add most of the milk -- hold a little bit back, just in case. Gently mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, until a soft dough is formed -- don't let it get too sticky. Knead it about 15 times until it holds together, and is smooth, but be gentle since overworking the dough makes it tough.

5. Sprinkle some flour on your work surface, and divide the dough into two balls. Flatten each ball into a 1/2 inch circle and cut into 8 wedges, like a pie. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment, brush them with the extra beaten egg, and sprinkle with sugar. 6. Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes.
These are delicious served plain or with your favorite jam. Devonshire cream is traditional, but hard to come by here in the states, and rather expensive. Whipped cream or butter are also nice -- if y0u can find Kerrygold Irish butter, it is worth every penny. Or my favorite, lemon curd, a delicious lemony custard similar to pie filling. But that's a topic for another blog.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Story Time by Edward Bloor

This is one weird book. Unfortunately, not weird in a good way.

This is not a book that had been recommended by anyone, or was on my to-read list, or even one I'd heard of. Lately, I've been trying to stick with my vast collection of unread books (which currently number more than 100), or books from one of my book groups, or even one of the hundreds on my Goodreads list. But this morning I was volunteering in the library and while I was shelving, Story Time just caught my eye in the Young Adult section (there's a funny little drawing of a demon on the cover). I thought I'd be spontaneous and started it right away. Sadly, it was not an undiscovered treasure, but a disappointment.

This book has a really interesting premise -- George, 11, and Kate, 13, have been accepted into the prestigious Whittaker Academy magnet school, which boasts that its students score highest on standardized tests than any other school in the country. George is eager to attend, since he doesn't fit in at the middle school -- he's smarter and smaller than everyone else in his grade. Kate is reluctant since she's a shoo-in for the lead in the school play, but agrees to go with him.

The school, which is in the basement of the an enormous historic city library, is sort of a cross between 1984 and Lemony Snicket's school from hell, The Austere Academy. In fact, I'd say this book was definitely influenced by The Series of Unfortunate Events -- the Whittaker family that administers the school are so horrible and surreal, they don't make sense, and there's no accountability by say, law enforcement or child protective services. But this book lacks the sly wit and clever wordplay of the Snicket series, and Kate and George aren't as endearing as the tragically funny Baudelaire siblings.

The book is labeled as a satirical, comedic look at the education and the growing emphasis on standardized test scoring, as the students at Whittaker aren't taught to learn or think, just to do well on the test. But this part of the story is quickly bypassed in favor of a plot development in which volumes of the rare book collection are harboring mischievous and murderous demons. Things continue to get weirder and more confusing as Kate and George explore rumors of mysterious deaths in the library. Then there are even more confusing and undeveloped plot elements, such as Kate's missing father, her agoraphobic mother, a librarian who speaks only in nursery rhymes, and a military death-ray. The whole thing gets wrapped up, sort of, during a disastrous visit from the First Lady.

I didn't find this book particularly amusing -- most of the characters are really nasty and mean-spirited, the subplots are too undeveloped, like the demons/ghosts -- and there were some violent and grotesque deaths. I found it just confusing, unsatisfying and oddly unsettling. There's just too much stuff packed into this story, and none of it is resolved very well. It's more than 400 pages, and it's not a difficult read, but I feel like I've wasted my time. bviously, there's a reason I hadn't heard of this book. Next time I'll disregard the clever artwork and stick with my to-read list.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Emma by Jane Austen

Oh, Emma. How I love you, and yet, how you frustrate and annoy me. Even Jane Austen wrote that she had created a heroine "whom no one but myself will much like." So there you have it. Emma is unique among Jane Austen's heroines because she's rich and doesn't need to worry about finding herself a good husband. However, this means that she's got lots of time on her hands, so she becomes a busybody and decides to match up all of her unmarried friends. Unfortunately, she's an insufferable snob, so that she thinks she knows who's best for everyone. This eventually backfires when she realizes she may have messed up her chances for the one man she really loves. In true Austen fashion, all ends well, though not exactly as first expected.

The first time I read this, I was so frustrated by Emma's character that I wanted to throw the book across the room (heretical behavior for a bibliophile). But this is just proof that Emma is so believeable and her character is so well-developed. Jane Austen makes her come to life. And the other characters, such as the chatterbox Miss Bates and the obnoxious Mrs. Elton, are so real I wanted to yell at them too. However, I will say that Emma, like David Copperfield, could have used a little editing. Some of the passages just seem to go on and on. That's probably why it's Jane Austen's longest book.

This time around I actually read very little of the print version, and mostly listened to the excellent audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson (on Naxos Audiobooks). If you've seen the 1996 film adaptation (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) might remember that Stevenson played the obnoxious and insufferable Mrs. Elton. This audiobook is absolutely wonderful and her narration is spot-on, making all the characters distinct. I even forgot that it was a woman narrating the men's parts as well, which I think is one sign of great audiobook narrator. If it wasn't so darned expensive I'd buy my own copy, but it's more than $80 plus shipping for the set of 13 CDs and $45 for the digital download. Still, if you can get it from your library, it's worth a listen.

Some people think that listening to an audiobook is somehow cheating -- The New York Times published a really interesting article on this very subject. Personally, I don't think so, as long as it's an unabridged version -- it's not as if you're reading the Cliffs Notes. I think the audio forces me to slow down and pay more attention -- sometimes I get so caught up in the plot of a book that I rush through to find out what's going to happen next. Also, some readers like Ms. Stevenson are so talented, they bring all the characters and situations to life, which makes it so much more memorable and enjoyable; and of course, some narrators just ruin a book altogether. Also, didn't the oral tradition of storytelling precede written narration? It's an ancient tradition. I don't think it's cheating the same way that watching a movie adaptation is. And I am a pushover for an Austen adaptation. I think I've seen them all, several times. I'm just waiting for the newest Emma adaptation, coming to PBS in January.

And, of course I'll be writing more on Jane Austen in October -- when I attend the 2009 meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America! (Yes, I know, I'm officially a Jane Austen geek.) I'll keep everyone posted on tea, whist, and ladylike behavior.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Series) by Jeff Kinney


That is my initial to response to this hugely popular children's series. I don't know what I was expecting, but, certainly, a little more. . . something. More humor? Better characters? This book left me mildly irritated at best.

Lately it seems like I can't escape this book. On a recent trip, my 12-year-old daughter bought the third book in this series and was laughing hysterically on the plane ride home (while I was engrossed in Dear Enemy). And this week when I volunteered at the school book fair, kids were buying the three volumes left and right, so I knew it was time to break down and try it. I started with the first book, then read the second and third in quick succession. It did not improve.

The plot in a nutshell: Middle-schooler Greg records his thoughts about life as wimpy middle-schooler and his home life as an under-appreciated middle child in a journal with cartoons. The cartoons are clever, sort of sophisticated stick figures, but not as witty as Fox Trot or as endearing as Calvin & Hobbes. The big turnoff for me is Greg's character -- the back of the book describes him as an "unlikely hero" but I found nothing heroic about him. He's really selfish, self-centered, and spends all his time trying to get out of homework, housework, or any kind of responsibility. He won't commit to any sports or hobbies other than video games. He only has one friend, Rowley, and he's really mean to him and is constantly taking advantage of him. I get the impression they're only friends because Rowley is somebody he can push around. I found the book pretty mean-spirited and there wasn't a single character I liked. There were only a couple of times through the three-volume series that I even snickered.

Since this book doesn't appeal to me in the least, I decided to consult my daughter. According to her, this book is funny because Greg does what she fantasizes about but would never do, like completing a four page paper by just typing four sentences in the biggest possible font, or not doing laundry for an entire year. Well, I guess it's good to know my daughter would never actually do these things.

This brought up another point with me: obviously, I'm NOT the target audience for this book, so, really, is it fair for an adult to critique a book meant for a child? Of course I can't appreciate this book the same way a ten-year-old would. I'm not a big fan of science fiction or sports books, so I can't see myself evaluating those either. But I suppose we can't have children evaluating all the children's books, or a lot of adult book reviewers who would be out a job.

I can see how this book would be great to get reluctant readers interested in reading, especially boys (though lots of girls like Wimpy Kid also). That's a big topic with librarians -- basically, just get them to read something. Then, hopefully you can get the kids to move to something a little more challenging. Maybe these books are a step up from Captain Underpants and the Goosebumps series. I just kept thinking there are lots of clever, funny books that aren't too hard. I love the Time Warp series by Jon Sciezska, and pretty much everything by Daniel Manus Pinkwater.

While I was reading this series, I couldn't help thinking about another book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It's also in diary form, with cartoon illustrations, and it is so wonderful on so many levels, but it's definitely for an older audience. It's one of the best YA books I've ever read. Another hilarious teen book in diary form is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, by Sue Townshend. The books are set in London and were published in the 1980s, but I reread them recently and they really have stood the test of time. They are laugh-out loud funny more than 20 years later.

I hope I don't sound like a literary snob (as you can see from my list of completed books, I read the entire Sookie Stackhouse series this summer!) I'm not saying kids should be expected to sit around reading only Newbery award winners and classics. The Wimpy Kid series is just the literary equivalent of a potato chip. Hopefully, the children who love these will move on to something a little more filling.

Friday, September 18, 2009

My favorite chocolate chip cookie

To my mind, there is no better dessert than a warm chocolate chip cookie. I would choose this over almost any other dessert. And it's perfect while reading since no utensils are necessary.

I am a big fan of back-of-the-box cooking, and the Nestle Tollhouse Cookie Recipe from the back of said package is a fine, fine recipe. However, a few years ago I was at a party where I tasted the best chocolate chip cookies I'd ever had. The hostess, a kind woman named Danielle, told me how to make them. It's very simple. First, make the original recipe in the link, but instead of adding the entire bag of chocolate chips (which measures two cups), add only one cup, plus half a bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Chips (which is slightly less than a cup, since the bag is smaller. A travesty. Though I suppose I should just double the recipe and use up one bag of each -- and have more cookies!). Then add 1 cup of rolled oats and 1 cup of Rice Krispies. The oatmeal make the cookies chewy and moist, and the Rice Krispies give it an interesting crunch.

In fact, this recipe is perfect for just about any mix-in variation you like. This summer I was making cookies with the kids and we could not agree on the mix-ins. I made a double batch of dough and divided it into three portions, so each of us could add our favorites. Another favorite mix-in combo is oatmeal, coconut, and dried cranberries.

Now all you need is a good book and a cold glass of milk, or a nice cup of tea. Enjoy!

The 2009 Bulwer-Lytton Contest Winners

Or should I say losers? For the best in bad writing, please, enjoy the recent contest winners of the 2009 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Bad writing has never been so good.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Every so often, I read a book that I love so much I will stop complete strangers at the library or the bookstore and beg them to read it. This is one of those books.

The beginning of this book is puzzling, but don't give up. It starts out with a cryptic prologue that doesn't make sense until you've read the entire book. Then we get to the heart of the story: eleven-year-old Miranda is a latchkey child living in New York City, the only child of a single mother. She's dealing with a lot of normal issues, like changing friendships, and first crushes, but the book also some more serious stuff -- safety in the big city, scary homeless people, racism, prejudice, and a frustrated mother in a low-paying job.

For a while this book seemed like just another realistic fiction book, albeit set in 1979, which is an interesting choice of time periods. It's so well written -- the characters are beautifully developed and the descriptions of Miranda's life in New York are so vivid, it's like I was right there in the sixth grade with her. Miranda is so real and the author has really captured what it's like to be that age. But midway through the book something happens that completely brings this book to a whole different level of wonderful. All I can say is that Miranda receives a mysterious message that changes her life forever. I'm afraid of saying too much because there is such a great twist to this story. I don't want to ruin it for anyone. I'm even going to be really vague in the tags so I don't spoil it for anyone. Also, I will warn readers: Miranda is reading the children's classic A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, and throughout the book she explains the story to a friend. I'm sorry to say she reveals some important plot points of that book, which is my one tiny complaint about this book -- if you read this BEFORE A Wrinkle in Time, it might spoil that book for you. Or you could just go read that first and then you'd read two amazing books in a row.

This had been in my library hold queue for several weeks, and I don't even remember adding it to the list. When it arrived, I couldn't even remember why I wanted to read it, and I kept putting it off. When I finally started reading it the other day, I was completely mesmerized and read the entire thing in one sitting. I laughed and gasped and cried, and when it was done, I brought it with me to my daughter's elementary school, because I was scheduled to volunteer at the book fair. I showed it to the librarian, to the library aide, some of the teachers, and all of the other parents who were helping out. Yesterday when I went to the public library where I volunteer, I found the branch's copy and marched over to the children's librarian and handed it to her. I'm spreading the gospel of When You Reach Me. It really is that good. If it doesn't make the Newbery shortlist, I will be shocked and appalled, unless there's something even better that I haven't read yet. If there is, I'd be lucky to read two such wonderful books.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I finished this book last night, and I must admit, it was exhausting. I started this book back in July, and I kept getting distracted. I don't know if it's the longest book I've ever read (I'm pretty sure War and Peace is longer), but it's got to be pretty close to the top of the list. My edition was 821 pages of text, not including the introduction, end notes, etc. I actually found a article which claims it's 358,000 words -- Dickens' longest work. Normally, I have nothing against long books, but lately I find that some of them make me impatient. Dickens, Dreiser, Tolstoy -- sometimes I think they really could have used a good editor. Even my beloved Jane Austen has moments in Emma (my other current read) in which I feel like shouting, "Just get on with it! Move it along!" It could be my education in journalism, in which we were taught that less is generally more. "Never use a ten-dollar word when a two-dollar word will do!" was the mantra that I have never forgotten. That's why Hemingway (a journalist) wrote. With. Very. Short. Sentences.

But back to David Copperfield. This is one of those classics that frequently shows up on lists of The Best Novels of All Time, Top Reading for College, etc., and in fact is the one Dickens loved best of all his works, probably because it's his most autobiographical. There is some great stuff in this book, and I absolutely started out loving it -- I read the first 300 pages or so very quickly and fell in love with it. I was sure it was going to supplant Bleak House as my favorite Dickens work. The story of David's childhood is both tragic and hilarious. His aunt Betsey Trotwood is an absolute hoot, and I was so impressed that his tragic beginnings were so compelling -- repugnant, but I couldn't put it down. His father died before he was born, his mother remarries an abusive monster, then she dies leaving him with a wretched stepfather who forces him to work in a factory. Of course, he's the quintessential Dickensian orphan.

However, I really got bored in the middle and kept putting it down for other books. David's youth and his courtship of the angelic Dora just didn't do it for me. Generally, I'm not impressed with Dickens' young female characters, which seem to be idealized and flat. It's the great descriptions of scenes and the quirky minor characters that really make the stories come to life. Also, the plot in David Copperfield isn't really that gripping, like in Oliver Twist or Bleak House.

I do realize that Dickens' books were all serialized and he had contracted with his publishers to come up with so many words per week or month; hence, the length and all the padding. I really wish I'd kept a running list of the characters, since minor characters disappear for hundreds of pages and then suddenly reappear. I found myself wondering where in the heck I'd heard of them, and consulting online sources so I could remember how they fit into the story. And of course Dickens is notorious for his use of unbelievable coincidences, which seem to appear mostly at the end of the book, thereby tying up all the loose ends of the story.

Don't get me wrong, I really like Dickens -- I've been on a Dickens kick the last year or so and I've read eight of his works since last May. But I think I may have overdone it this time. I'm glad I read it, and I do recommend it if you like the Victorian style of flowery prose, multiple short chapters, and amazing coincidences. However, I think it's time for me and Dickens to take a short break.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

Somehow I managed to grow up an avid reader yet never read some of the classic coming-of-age tales such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Anne of Green Gables. This has fueled one of my current reading obsessions, the children's classics. Of course it's possible I appreciate them more as an adult. I recently discovered a new favorite that I just loved, Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster. Well, I'm calling it a children's classic simply because it seems to be marketed towards children. More on that later.

A quick synopsis: Set in the early 20th century, young Jerusha (Judy) Abbott has grown up in a not-quite-Dickensian orphanage (another orphan -- children's literature is rife with them!) and at 17, they're ready to put her out on the street. Luckily, some of her schoolwork has attracted the attention of one of the wealthy trustees, so she now has an anonymous benefactor who offers to finance her college education. The only condition is that she write a monthly letter to the mysterious, nameless trustee, whom she dubs "Daddy Long Legs" after she sees a glimpse of his shadow. Judy chronicles her college years through these letters to her patron. We learn about her life, her friends, and of course, the identity of the mystery man before the resolution. Also includes cute little cartoony illustrations by the author.

This is a charming coming-of-age story. It's witty and sweet and not the least bit saccharine or sentimental. All I could think while I was reading this book, which I tore through on a plane ride, was "Why isn't this book better known and/or more popular?" It was very popular when it was first published (in 1912) and had multiple stage and screen adaptations, including one starring Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire, both of whom sound terribly miscast. I can only surmise that it's not really a children's book, and today's adults may find it lacking in sex and violence. Probably teenagers as well, since it lacks the requisite vampire/supernatural element.

Since I enjoyed it so much, I rushed to the bookstore to see if I could find my own copy. The Penguin classics edition also includes the sequel, Dear Enemy. . Amazingly, I must have purchased the only copy in the entire metro area. (Seriously. I checked both mega-book store chains' websites. Not a single copy left in the whole city!).

Anyhoo, Dear Enemy is the sequel, or maybe the companion volume, since it's actually the story of Judy's roommate Sallie McBride, who takes over as director of the dreary John Grier Home. Again, the story is told in letters, mostly to Judy, her politician swain in D.C., and to the grumpy resident physician, Dr. MacRae (the eponymous enemy). Again, it's delightfully breezy yet intelligent, but with a more serious undertone, since Sallie is dealing with social reform, orphan welfare, nature vs. nurture, etc. Plus, Sallie is a grownup, struggling with her own romantic feelings. This book deals with far more adult themes than Daddy Long Legs, and I can't imagine this as a good read for a child. I really don't know any teenagers but from what I observe in the library and the bookstore they're mostly obsessed with the supernatural. My library doesn't have a copy, so I don't know how it's typically cataloged. Either way, they are both very enjoyable reads.

Laurie Colwin and Chocolate Pear Pudding

The past week or so it's actually been cool enough in Texas to think about turning on the oven, so for dinner I cooked the Tiny Thanksgiving: a 3-lb Butterball turkey roast (comes with a gravy packet); glazed carrots, green bean casserole, and corn. And since it's fall, and pears are in season, I was able to make one of my favorite homey desserts: Chocolate Pear Pudding from Laurie Colwin's excellent book, More Home Cooking.

For those of you who don't know her work, Laurie Colwin was a fiction writer and food essayist who died suddenly at the age of 48. She wrote several novels and collections of short stories, but may be best known for her food columns in Gourmet. More Home Cooking, her second book of food essays with recipes, was published posthumously. They are witty and charming, and her writing style is so easy and accessible, it's like she's sitting in the kitchen talking to you. Her novels and short stories are also wonderful, but I'll have to blog about those later.

In her essay, In Praise of Pears, Laurie includes the Chocolate Pear Pudding, which is not an American-style custard pudding, but a British baked pudding. For lovers of British literature like myself, this is what characters are referring to when they say, "What's for pudding?" Colwin is a big fan of British cookbooks, and writes that this recipe comes from Josceline Dimbleby's Book of Puddings, Desserts and Savouries. It's out of print, but copies are available from the online bookseller Alibris and from

It's an easy and wonderful fall dessert. The pudding itself is fluffy and cakelike, and the soft baked pears at the bottom are a tender surprise. Apples would be inappropriate in a chocolate dessert, but the pears are subtle and delicious.

One of the ingredients in this dessert is Lyle's Golden Syrup -- golden treacle, to be specific. Those of you who are Harry Potter fans will now have two reasons to purchase a can or jar of treacle. You an make a treacle tart, (Harry's favorite dessert) and still have enough left over to make this wonderful dessert. It's available at well-stocked grocery stores and specialty gourmet or British stores.

Chocolate Pear Pudding

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

For the pears:
1 lb pears (about 4) peeled, cored and cut into chunks
2 Tb white sugar
2 TB butter

Butter a baking dish and fill the bottom with pears. Sprinkle with sugar and dot with butter, just like a fruit pie.

Next, mix the batter:

3/4 cup flour
1 heaping TB cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup brown sugar (scant)
2 TB Lyle's Golden Syrup
1 large egg, beaten
4 TB melted butter
1/4 cup milk

Beat this into a batter and pour it on top of the pears. Bake about 45 minutes or until a pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

You can eat this hot or cold, and it's excellent served with ice cream.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Welcome to my blog! I'll make this introduction short so I can get down to the business of blogging. I'm an unemployed librarian with waaay too much time on my hands, so I decided to start writing about my two favorite subjects: books and desserts. Well, all kinds of cooking, but desserts mostly. My idea of a wonderful day is reading a good book and eating something delicious. Preferably chocolate.

I won't claim that I have many qualifications to review books -- I wasn't a lit major so I can't profess to know too much about literary theory or criticsm. The little I know I picked up in my children's lit classes in library school (which were by far my favorites). I just read a lot of books -- I think I've read about 90 so far this year, so I should easily finish more than 100. A few years ago I realized I was sadly deficient in my knowledge of classic literature, so I've been trying to read the books and authors I somehow missed in high school and college. I also enjoy children's literature, both classic and current. I belong to several book groups so I'll probably include some of those selections as well.

As far as cooking goes, I actually have some credentials. After I finished journalism school and suffered through two terrible jobs, I decided to pursue a lifelong dream and go to cooking school. I received a culinary certificate and also cooked professionally (mostly making desserts) for about five years. I also worked for about nine months as a professional restaurant critic for a free weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 90,000. So I'm pretty confident writing about cooking, restaurants, and food in general.

OK, time to start blogging!