Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
This short history of butter and butter making is a delicious read. Khosrova traveled around the world to watch butter being made and used, from sculpting butter cows in Iowa, to watching yaks being milked in Bhutan and discovering that yak butter tea made with fresh butter can be delicious. Butter has been made from the milk of camels, water buffaloes, goats, and sheep, as well as cows, for many thousands of years. Religious rituals using butter, superstitions about butter making, and a variety of churns are all described. The history of commercial butter making is included, along with butter’s possible health benefits and the mid-century battle of butter and margarine. Sadly, I grew up on margarine, but I don’t bake with it. I had no idea that butter has become trendy, tending to buy whatever brand of unsalted butter is on sale. I have recently sampled three premium butters: a sweet cream European style butter and cultured salted butters from Brittany and Wales. During a recent visit to a local chain supermarket, I found at least six more premium butters, including a two pound roll of Amish butter. A big box retailer has two selections, and a national chain of small grocery stores currently offers butter made from water buffalo milk with Himalayan sea salt. The butters I tried were all delicious, especially on bread. I will still use basic butter most of the time, but where butter is featured in a recipe, like shortbread cookies or puff pastry, I’m looking forward to using a richer tasting, lower moisture premium butter. Recipes from simple to sophisticated are included, including two methods for making your own butter. The author trained as a pastry chef, has worked as a food writer for a test kitchen, and edits a magazine about cheese. A long list of recommended butters is included. This is one of the most enjoyable microhistories I have read.
Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
A long, leisurely read about the history of making and using paper, as well as papyrus and parchment. Wall screens, lanterns and lamp shades, kites, balloons, gun cartridges, and even clothing have been made from paper. One of the first uses of paper was to wrap food, and it’s long been used in prayer flags and to burn at religious ceremonies. The history of printing is also described, and the rise and fall of newspapers. Paper making involves a reliable supply of cold, running water, a large supply of linen or cotton rags or other plants, and skilled paper makers. With their arms constantly in cold water manipulating heavy frames, paper making was arduous work, but skilled workers could travel to another area to find work at another paper mill, or start a new mill. Over the centuries there has been a rising demand for paper, and also the plants or used cloth needed to make it. Surprisingly, paper wasn’t made from wood pulp until around 1850. The use of paper doesn’t seem to have declined in this century, and there is a renewed interest in handmade and other specialty papers for writing, painting, and drawing, and paper is still being made from a variety of materials. An interesting and informative microhistory, but not a page turner.
Every year, November and December bring a new assortment of winter holiday stories. Most, but not all, are about Christmas, are usually short, and they are featured in a library display called “Heartwarming Holiday Stories.” If you’re looking for a pleasant holiday read, you’ll find plenty of books to browse. Here are short reviews of three new selections:
Christmas Caramel Murder by Joanne Fluke
In another delicious winter holiday mystery, cookie baker Hannah Swensen is looking back at the previous winter, telling a newcomer to Lake Eden a story about her business partner Lisa. Lisa is worried that her husband Herb is out late “working” every night, and is really upset when she doesn’t get to play Mrs. Claus to Herb’s Santa in a local Christmas show, and the very flirty Phyllis wears a rather revealing costume at the dress rehearsal. Shortly afterwards Hannah and Lisa find a body in a snowbank, near a bag of caramels that Lisa made. Hannah, an experienced amateur sleuth, works with detective Mike to find the killer. I didn’t try any of the dozen recipes included, but they sound delicious. A nice touch is that Hannah dreams of her father as the ghosts in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and the ghosts give her some helpful hints. Suzanne Torren is an excellent narrator for the audiobook version.
Amish holiday stories are very popular here, and this book features two novellas. In The Midwife’s Christmas Surprise by Marta Perry, young midwife Anna Zook is having trouble getting accepted in her Amish community as more than an assistant midwife. She is stunned when her friend’s son, Benjamin Miller, returns from three years in the “English” world. In A Christmas to Remember by Jo Ann Brown, storekeeper Amos Stoltzfus is led to an injured woman by a little girl who can only tell them their names. Linda has lost her memory and can’t remember where she was taking the little girl. Short and sweet holiday romances make for a quick read.
Twelve Days of Christmas by Debbie Macomber
Julia works at a large department store, volunteers at a Boys and Girls Club playing piano, and needs to develop a popular blog for a chance at a corporate social media job. Julia’s friend encourages her to write about her grumpy neighbor Cain, and do something kind for him every day during the Christmas season. Cain turns down chocolate chip cookies and a free drink at his favorite coffee shop, so the kindness campaign is not starting out well. Then Cain gets sick, Julia meets his grandfather, and her blog takes off. What will happen if Cain finds out that she’s writing about him? This is a fun, heartwarming story with a little romance, and I didn’t mind that it was a bit predictable. Brenda
Paul Gunn, a 41-year-old pilot working in Manila when Pearl Harbor was attacked, will do whatever it takes to help win the air war in the Pacific and get back to Manila to rescue his family. “Pappy” Gunn works to the point of exhaustion, even in ill health, to modify and improve planes sent to the Pacific, train pilots, lead low altitude bombing runs, and even threaten quartermasters at gunpoint to get the supplies his crews need. Back in Manila, his wife Polly and their four children stay with friends until they are forced to move to the internment camp at Santo Tomas, a former university. Polly eventually toughens up and helps her family by deceiving the camp’s Japanese officers, and persistently demands that her children receive the medical care and housing they need, even if it’s not at Santo Tomas. The Gunn children help guard the family’s possessions, steal and smuggle food, spy, and keep secret a hidden radio. Set in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Australia, the remarkable Gunn family’s adventures will keep the reader in suspense to find out what happens. Indestructible is a readalike for Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, and 81 Days Below Zero, by Brian Murphy.
Conclave by Robert Harris
In the near future, the Pope has died in his sleep, and Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, must lead the conclave of cardinals to select a new pope. Once the conclave begins, the cardinals under the age of 80 eat and sleep at the Casa Santa Marta and vote by secret ballot in the Sistine Chapel, secluded from the outside world. Lomeli welcomes 117 cardinals, worrying about the homily he must preach the next day, only to meet Vincent Benitez, secretly named Cardinal and Archbishop of Baghdad by the pope. This might not sound like an exciting book, but it is an absorbing thriller that is hard to put down, with an ever intensifying pace, with hints of violence in the outside world, as the cardinals have trouble reaching a two-thirds majority in the early ballots. The beautiful paintings by Michelangelo contrast strongly with the humble rooms at the guesthouse and the mediocre food served by nuns in blue habits. Lomeli is investigating some of the leading contenders, hoping to avoid future scandals. There are a lot of characters, but Harris focuses on just a few. Tedesco is an Italian traditionalist, favoring a return to mass in Latin. Tremblay is an ambitious French Canadian who met with the Pope a few hours before his death. Bellini, the Vatican Secretary of State, is the solid liberal choice, while conservative African Adeyemi has a chance to become the first black pontiff. In the first ballot, Lomeli is surprised when he gets a few votes, as he has always been a manager, never a pastor, and has been having trouble praying and sleeping. Also, the unknown Benitez gets a vote. The author is best known for his books about World War II and Imperial Rome; I thought his novel Pompeii was very interesting. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, satisfying thriller with little violence, this is an excellent choice.
Plaid & Plagiarism by Molly MacRae
This book is an appealing beginning to a new cozy mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands. Librarian Janet, her daughter Tallie, and two of their friends buy a bookshop in Inversgail with plans to open a tearoom next door and a B & B upstairs. Making a quick visit to Janet’s house to see why her move has been delayed, Christine finds the kitchen full of trash while Summer, a reporter, finds a dead body in the garden shed. Later they find a biscuit tin full of threatening letters at the bookshop, which were probably written by the victim, advice columnist Una Graham. I found the four women a bit difficult to tell apart at first, but it was interesting having four amateur sleuths working together on the same case. There are plenty of descriptions of learning to run a bookshop, remodel a tearoom, and plenty of local colour, although sadly no scone recipes. A good start to the Highland Bookshop series, with some room for improvement.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
The island of St. Thomas in the 19th century makes a vivid setting for a biographical novel about Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his parents. Rachel roams around the island with Jestine, the daughter of her family’s cook, Adelle, and only reluctantly agrees to marry Isaac Petit, an older Jewish merchant with three children. She loves his children and their own, but does not love Isaac. After Isaac’s death, his nephew Frederic travels from Paris to run the family business. Rachel and Frederic fall scandalously in love. Camille is one of their children, whose fascination with color and island life distract him from his work at the family’s store. Surprisingly, Rachel coldly discourages his artistic talent, although Camille gets the encouragement he needs from Rachel’s friend Jestine. Several of the characters spend time in Paris, also colorfully drawn. A very strong sense of place, lively dialogue, complex characters, and a touch of magical realism make this book an enchanting read.
British Library Crime Classics
Recently I’ve read three of the British Library Crime Classics, mysteries originally published in 1935 and 1936. The series is described as “forgotten classics from the golden age of British crime writing”. 18 titles so far have recently been published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press. I think that the books I’ve read will have broad appeal today.
The Cornish Coast Murders, by John Bude, is set in a small village on the coast of Cornwall. The mystery is discussed and partly solved during fireside chats in Reverend Dodd’s study, where he meets with the local doctor and Inspector Bigswell. When a local magistrate is apparently shot through a picture window, there are very few clues, suspects, or motives.
Death in the Tunnel, by Miles Burton, involves the death of a wealthy semi-retired businessman while alone in a locked train compartment, in a railway tunnel. There is no obvious motive for murder or suicide. The mystery is solved by the combination of careful detective work by Inspector Arnold and other, unnamed police officers, and the imaginative ideas of of Arnold’s friend, amateur criminologist Desmond Merrion.
Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay, is set at a woman’s college at Oxford University. An unpopular member of the college staff is found dead in a canoe on a cold January afternoon by several of the students, who proceed to help police investigate the death.
The settings of these novels are charming to a modern reader, the intricate plotting is first-rate, the violence level is low, and the writing is compelling and richly detailed, making for quite a pleasant reading experience.