In the spirit of full disclosure, my first cousin is Jon Krampner, the talented author of Creamy and Crunchy, An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All American Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table) Columbia University Press, November 2012. Jon is the author of two other books about somewhat obscure characters in the movie business: Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley and; The man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television. I admit I love peanut butter, and I loved Jon’s peanut butter book, which launched just this month!
When Jon told me that he was embarking upon a new project, I was delighted that it was about something I really like: peanut butter! I have eagerly awaited the completion of Creamy and Crunchy. Jon spent years researching the history of peanut butter, peanut butter’s main players, its role in popular culture, and much, much more. If you read Creamy and Crunchy you will learn more about peanut butter than you ever thought possible. You may also be surprised that what you thought was peanut butter fact, is actually, fiction. The book is full of recipes, anecdotes, fun references and photos. However, Creamy and Crunchy, like peanut butter itself, is weighty. Krampner is an academic by profession. The book does read in places like a college text, written as much for the clarity of the content, as to make an amusing read. But what’s inside the cover on those pages is so fascinating that the entertainment factor rises and there is also plenty of humor. If you are interested in food and in eating, popular culture, you can’t live without peanut butter, or just want to immerse yourself in a good read that teaches you something new and unique about a beloved food item, you’ll find that Creamy and Crunchy is a “stick-to-your-ribs” treat that will have you craving “seconds.” Maybe Mr. Krampner will do a sequel, on jelly (for a PBJ slam-dunk)! Buy the book on the Creamy and Crunchy Web Site which is maintained by the Author, and enjoy a look at his blog, and fun items such as peanut-butter-centric songs, a video about the life cycle of peanut butter, and even a peanut butter quiz! You can also follow him on Twitter @pbjo6
In I am Forbidden, A Novel by Anouk Markovitz (Crown Publishing, 2012) the reader is given a peek into the lifestyle, culture and beliefs of the private world of the ultra-orthodox Jews of the Hasidic Satmars. I Am Forbidden is a novel about love and loss, spanning four generations, from pre-World War II Transylvania to 1960′s Paris, to modern NYC. While I know very little about the world of the Satmars, I was drawn in by the descriptions of daily life in every generation, for theirs is a restricted existence that lies firmly in their history and deeply rooted beliefs. What seems “normal” to you, isn’t the same for ultra-religious Jews, or for any religious group. Many of the activities we take for granted, would be completely unacceptable, bordering on scandalous.
The book begins in the Transylvania of 1939 as Josef, a young boy, is rescued by a gentile woman to be raised as her own son. He, in turn, saves Mila, a young girl who is literally orphaned as her parents race to meet a Rebbe (Rabi) they hope will save them. With Josef’s help, Mila enters the home of Satmar leader Zalman Stern where she is raised along with Zalman’s own daughter, Atara. As the story unfolds, Mila becomes more devout, but Atara makes different choices. The author, Amouk Markovits, left the Satmar sect when she was a teenager. However, the book seems very authentic, thanks to her extensive research and her access to the Ultra-Orthodox in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (traditionally a Hasidic enclave along with other minorities, not just today’s hipster residents). It is a fascinating book about the ultra-religious that will have you thinking differently about how they view the world. Let it open your eyes.
There is just something special about things in small or unusual packaging. That’s really the thought behind Desserts in Jars, 50 Sweet Treats that Shine by Shaina Olmanson (Harvard Common Press, 2012). This enticing book, full of color photos will make you want to drop everything you are doing, and create your own little works of art, in glass jars. Whether your budget for gifts this season is tight or not, offering someone a hand-made treat, especially one captured in a glass jar, is a lovely way to give a unique gift. Giving is supposedly better than receiving, and a lot of the recipes in this book are easy enough for a novice baker or cook to pull off scccessfuly. If I have any real issues with the recipes, it’s that it appears the majority of the recipes call for the use of small, wide mouth jars (they are easier to full, and the recipes obviously are sized to fit them). As a person who cans jams and jellies every year, I can tell you that these jars can be really difficult to find in local stores. If you can’t find the wide mouth 8-ounce jar you really can’t make a lot of the offerings (e.g. apple pies & cheesecakes that look super cute in a wide mouth jar, but won’t work as well (or at all) in a tall jar of the same volume). This issue really does limit what you can make. If you love the recipes that call for the wide mouth jars and you can’t find them in your local stores, you can order some online or through a catalog, but that will significantly increase what you have to spend, to give! Despite this, there are plenty of recipes you can make with half pint and quart jars that could make standing in line at the checkout counter in retail stores during the holidays, a thing of the past. And, of course, the baked goods in jars are a great little “thank you” gift any time of year. The mixes at the back of the book, however, are all dry ingredients and can be attractively layered in just about any containers you wish. All in all, a great read. The book would make a cute gift for a cook, too.
The Shortest Way Home by Juliette Fay (Penguin Books, 2012) is a lovely novel about Sean, a young man who is an adventurer, trying to escape his unhappy childhood and young adult-hood. When his mother dies, his father gives Sean and his sister over to the care of a reticent, maiden Aunt. Each family member might have, or be the carrier, of Huntington’s disease. As tests become available, Sean rejects the idea of getting tested, instead planning never to marry or have children of his own (as did his Aunt), Instead, Sean escapes for 20 years into Third World war zones. But eventually, he decides to visit his family in Belham, Massachusetts. His intention is to stay just for a short while, but as the story unfolds, Sean is slowly drawn back into the family issues, dealing with his aunt who is now having mental issues; his selfish, drama-centric sister; the special needs of his deceased brother’s child, Kevin; the resurfacing of his “deadbeat ” dad; and finally, with his own issues of life, love and career .
Like so many dysfunctional families, Sean’s entire family is imperfect and difficult. But as time goes by, Sean finds that he needs his family, and they need him. He must learn how to forgive and move forward in his life, if he wants to love again. For many people, the journey “back home” is complicated. This book is about growing up,taking risks, and learning how to be responsible for love, not just obligation. This third novel by Juliette Fay is quite good. The characters are interesting, the story, fast-paced, and you’ll want to read to the very last page to see how Sean’s journey unfolds.
Looking for an intriguing novel? Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie (William Morrow 2012) may be the one for your next “snow day” or weekend at home. Emma Tupper is a young, successful lawyer about to make partner. She has an apartment and a boyfriend, and everything is as she wants it to be. However, at her mother’s deathbed, Emma promises that she will honor her mother’s wish to visit Africa, a country that her mother never got to visit. When the will is read, Emma finds that she has been left a pre-purchased ticket to Africa, and not much else. Although she has a boyfriend and risks losing her partnership if she leaves, Emma goes alone to Africa to join a small tour. After a few days, however, Emma becomes very ill. Finding herself in the middle of “nowhere,” she’s taken to a small village to recuperate. Then, there is an earthquake, trapping her for six months.
When Emma finally gets back to the States, she finds that her life, has literally vanished. She’s been declared dead. Her apartment has been rented to someone else, her belongings are gone, her boyfriend has found a new girlfriend. her job and partnership opportunities are eliminated, and her very identity is in question. If this sounds like a nightmare, it could possibly happen to anyone. But it’s up to Emma to reclaim her life. If you ever wondered how you would manage it if know one literally knew who you were, you’ll find Forgotten terrifying, and yet, hopeful. A great read and very well done.
Susan McBride’s In the Pink: How I Met the Perfect (Younger) Man, Survived Breast Cancer, and Found True Happiness After 40 (Avon Books 2012) surprised me. What did a major publishing company like Harper Collins see in this book? To this reviewer, the book has a good story, but it’s the type of account perfectly suited to the self-published genre.
Susan is a writer, who, as the title suggests, found love after 40 with a younger man, and survived breast cancer. Any woman who is over 40, is looking for love, or experiences a seriously illness, could relate to Susan. But, although the book is all about these issues, there really isn’t much substance either in the content, or the size of the book (it is very slim). All readers will get is a general accounting of what the author went through, but it reads like a sanitized version of what you’d recount at a dinner party. The tone is almost too optimistic. Even her struggles with radiation and multiple surgeries read something like: well, that sucked, and I moved on. Surely she had more worries and really low moments that others going through similar travails, would want to know about? For example, she doesn’t really divulge anything about the challenges she faced while dating, living with, and finally marrying, a younger man. And what about her family’s genetic link to breast cancer? How did she feel when other family members were also diagnosed? How terrified was her radiation treatment and what did it feel like to undergo such an intense course of it? How does it feel to think you might possibly die, when you have a young fiance who possibly could be burdened with a very sick wife? Was she ever worried that her boyfriend “Ed,” eventually her husband, might find the age difference plus her cancer struggles, too much to handle? These are issues that McBride does address, but really only in a few sentences, before moving on. The author just seems to glide through her life, bumps and all, without much more in terms of sharing her feelings than the message that “life is good.” Even the author’s “tips” to readers about dating and breast cancer at the end of the book offer the kind of quick hit you get from a sugary drink: a burst of “feel good” that leaves you wanting more again, very quickly. This book could have been a winner, but instead, it’s just disappointing.
A Century of Flavor, Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, The CookBook Marketplace (2008) isn’t a new book. Mine arrived with an assortment of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla extracts that I discovered at a holiday preview event. The vanilla extracts run in price anywhere from around $29.59 *on Amazon.com for a 32 oz. Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Vanilla and $26.00 for a Nielsen-Massey 32 oz. Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract, to a more modest $16.35 for the 8 oz varieties, and $10.46 for a Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste – 4 oz. While this is a book review feature, not one about Vanilla, not all vanilla extracts are created equal. The Nielsen-Massey vanillas are superb–rich, aromatic, and quite sensual. The extracts are pricey, ut you can get the recipe book for a lot less (under $6.00) , and that doesn’t mean it’s not a “find.”
While the recipes are limited and of course, Nielsen-Massey focused, you can learn a lot about vanilla and other extracts from the book, and there are recipes not just for vanilla extract, but for the other types of extracts Nielsen-Masssey carries as well, such as almond, lemon, and chocolate. You’ll be surprised at the amount of things you can make with extracts that most of us think of as merely for dessert recipes (e.g. a vanilla infused balsamic vinaigrette; creamy vanilla sweet potatoes, a pork tenderloin). Of course there are plenty of expected dessert recipes, too. The book has lovely color illustrations and would make a great gift, especially if you package it with some of the Nielsen-Massey extracts!
Those who can crochet, can make beautiful gifts and not spend too much cash, doing it. Two books from St. Martins’s press give you gorgeous ideas: 100 Snowflakes to Crochet: Make Your Own Snowdrift–to Give or to Keep by Caitlin Sainio (2012), and; 75 Floral Blocks to Crochet: Beautiful Patterns to Mix and match for Afghans, Throws, Baby Blankets and more by Betty Barnden (2012). I loved looking at the detailed, full color photos. The floral blocks are offered in all sorts of shapes and sizes, even flowers and diamonds. Make a few of these and add allure to an ordinary granny afghan, or just make them for coasters or trivets. As to the snowflakes, I can image a tree full of “snowflakes” for an old-fashioned Christmas, or perhaps just one, hung in a sunny window. But, after looking at the photos, and reading the instructions, I quickly realized that my beginner’s skills wouldn’t be enough to allow me to follow the directions. Maybe these books aren’t for beginners, but if you can master the charts, you can make amazing items for gifts and for your own home. If you know someone who is a whiz with a crochet hook, these books would make lovely holiday gift ideas.