A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Step back in time, to the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Count Alexander Rostov, 30, is living in a suite, full of family antiques, enjoying mingling with international guests and fine dining every night. Unfortunately, a revolutionary poem he’s authored becomes too popular, and a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 sentences him to house arrest at the Metropol, for life. Stuck in an attic room, how shall he live? Fortunately, Rostov is wealthy, charming, and resourceful. Young hotel guest Nina has acquired a master key and explores the hotel with Rostov. While he is removed from the outside world, the staff and guests share their experiences with Stalinist Russia and later World War II with him, especially after he becomes the head waiter of the hotel’s restaurant. He can plan seating charts with ease, has perfect manners, and has a fine palate for wine and gourmet food. Daily meetings with the maître d’ and the chef lead to friendship, as well as some excellent bouillabaisse. Beautiful actress Anna Urbanova makes regular visits, and a young girl, Sofia, comes to stay and captures Rostov’s heart. This is a rich, layered novel to savor, with lyrical writing, marvelous characters, and both humorous and poignant moments. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, and I enjoyed it even more than his first novel, Rules of Civility.
Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal
An absorbing coming-of-age story set in 1960s New Orleans, this first novel is moving and compelling. Ibby Bell, almost 12, travels to New Orleans to live with her grandmother after her father dies. Ibby learns to wear dresses, eat Southern food, and attends her first church service. Fannie is an eccentric, wealthy woman who likes to bet on sports. Queenie is her longtime cook, Queenie’s daughter Dollbaby takes care of the house, makes dresses for Ibby, and is slightly involved in the Civil Rights movement. Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia shows Ibby around New Orleans, although they draw stares in segregated New Orleans. Queenie and Dollbaby teach Ibby the rules to living with Fannie: don’t talk about the past, don’t ask about the locked bedrooms, and don’t ask too many questions. The big house has its secrets, which Ibby gradually learns, along with her family history. A strong sense of place and appealing, complex characters add to this book’s considerable appeal.
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.
Microhistories: History on a Small Scale
These are a few of the recent books with a narrow focus on a single subject, event, or place. I’m reading Paper, enjoyed Consider the Fork, The End of Night, and have Butter on my list of books to read. These titles and many more are on display this month at the Woodridge Public Library. Enjoy!
Bogard, Paul. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013.
Brox, Jane. Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.
Donovan, Tristan. Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, 2014. Eckstut, Joann. The Secret Language of Color, 2013.
Foy, Simon. Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, 2010.
Garfield, Simon. Just My Type: A Book about Fonts, 2011.
Hucklebridge, Dane. The United States Of Beer : A Freewheeling History Of The All-American Drink, 2016.
Kawash, Samira. Candy: A Century of Panic, 2013.
Kosrova, Elaine. Butter: A Rich History, 2016.
Kurlansky, Mark. Paper: Paging Through History, 2016.
Lukacs, Paul. Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Ancient Pleasures, 2012.
Metcalf, Allan. OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, 2011.
Roach, Mary. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, 2013.
Shaffer, Marjorie. Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice, 2013.
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, 2012.
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller
Livvy Rawlings, a Boston pastry chef, has her life go up in flames when she drops a huge baked alaska. Retreating to her friend Hannah in small-town Guthrie, Vermont, she gets a chance to bake at the Sugar Maple Inn, where owner Margaret is known for her award-winning apple pies. Livvy has a history of making bad decisions, about men, hair color, working and drinking too much; but what she really wants is a family. She finds one on an apple orchard/Christmas tree farm with the McCrackens, from frail Henry to his welcoming wife and handsome son Martin, who invites Livvy (who improbably plays banjo) to join a local band. I didn’t really understand why she spends so much time with the McCracken family when pregnant Hannah really needs her, but I think the author wanted to show how flawed and real Livvy is. Livvy briefly returns to Boston, but is no longer a city girl, and returns to Guthrie to bake a wedding cake, and more pies. A pleasant vacation read that was good but not great. Small-town life with its quirky residents, well-drawn descriptions of food and music add to this first novel’s appeal, along with Livvy’s huge dog, Salty.
Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew
Are you looking for a new mystery author, or some new recipes to try? This mystery debut, set in the Klein Karoo region of Western Cape, South Africa introduces Tannie Maria, a widow who writes an advice and recipe column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. Melktert (milk tart), anyone? Some of the letters Maria receives are rather alarming, and one correspondent is found dead. Maria and young reporter Jessie decide to investigate, to the dismay of their editor Hattie and detective Henk Kannemeyer. The food and scenery descriptions are wonderful, the mystery is both funny and suspenseful, and the appealing characters have depth.
Delicious! by Ruth Reichl
Billie Breslin leaves college early to move to New York City for work. She lands a job as assistant to the editor of a food magazine called Delicious!, housed in an old mansion. Gradually the reader learns that Billie doesn’t like to cook, even though used to have a cake-baking business with her older sister, Genie. Billie is befriended by a cook, an older travel writer, and the owner of a cheese shop. Later, she finds a secret room behind the magazine’s long-closed library, full of letters from the magazine’s readers, including several written during World War II by a young girl, Lulu, to famous chef James Beard. Through Lulu’s letters Billie learns about life in Akron, Ohio during World War II and wonders how her life turned out, while reluctant to go home and face her own family. This was a fast read for me, as I kept turning the pages to find out what would happen to Billie and Lulu. I can almost smell Billie’s famous gingerbread cake, which is one of several recipes included in this book.