Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The Reader
by Judy Westergard
Oil on canvas

I read a lot. In fact, it’s probably my love of printed text that drew me to teaching. But I no longer have a classroom of teenagers whom I can excite with my passion over my latest read, so little blog has become the next best thing. (That along with friends who tell me they like reading my reviews. Hmm...seems that bribery with fresh homemade bread works better than I thought!)

That fresh bread reference isn’t a fluke. It’s a planned segue into one of the best cookbooks I’ve come across in a long time.
Several months ago I picked up Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day* (Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois). I’d already tried the trendy “no knead bread” that was making the TV talk show rounds. The resulting loaves were crusty on the outside, moist on the inside...everything an artisan loaf should be. But when Hertzberg and Francois came out with a no knead recipe that would yield enough dough to store the surplus in the fridge or freezer, I bit. Then I baked. Then I ate. And then I ate some more. I’ve made their basic broule; added poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and all kinds of other goodies to that basic recipe. I’ve made their brioche, then pulled off another pound of dough from the batch in the refrigerator and turned it into caramel pecan rolls. Today I’ve just taken from the oven an old fashioned loaf of plain ol’ white bread. I’ve made close to half a hundred loaves of bread from this wonderful book and not one has been a failure. (Nor has any one of them needed to be kneaded! Throw the ingredients in a bowl, turn on the mixer, and in a few minutes you’ve got bread dough rising. Pull off a hunk, shape, rise, and bake. Want more tomorrow? Easy, fast, good...and foolproof!)
So much for the foodie part of me. Another love is travel and, when I can’t fit a trip into my budget, travel books serve as an acceptable surrogate. Catherine Watson, retired travel editor for the Minneapolis ‘Star Tribune,’ published a compilation of some of her best columns. Home on the Road* has become one of my much-thumbed, frequently reread travel books. Like all good memoir writers, Watson writes in such a way that the writing is more about the reader than about herself. One of my favorite passages from the book: “...Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again, but only as a tourist: In the landscape of your life, you do not get to stay.” She has many strengths as a travel writer, not the least of which is that she focuses on the people who live near in the shadow of that mountain, who wash in that get the idea. I love this kind of writing where I learn about a place through its people.
And finally, a new release: The Hour I First Believed* by Wally Lamb. My reactions about this lengthy novel are mixed. The characters are wide-ranging in age and personalities and the plot is compelling and believable. Lamb revisits some of our nation’s tragedies (the Columbine murders and the Hurricane Katrina debacle, among others) and in so doing, I found myself re-examining what I believe about good and evil. But his writing style? After a little while of reading? It irritates me. The kids today? And even the 30- and 40- somethings? They frequently talk in this question-at-the-beginning of a sentence style. I’m still debating whether Lamb’s use of this device enhanced the narrative. Interestingly, he drops it as the main character (who is also the narrator) matures. I can find lots of possible reasons for using this style; I found it interruptive.

*Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
subtitle: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking
Authors: Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (2007)

*Home on the Road
subtitle: Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth
Author: Catherine Watson
Publisher: Syren Book Company, 2007

*The Hour I First Believed
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2008

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