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Flesh and Blood So CheapFlesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

I read this one in two sittings, a week or two apart. Once you pick it up, it’s an aborbing read as much for as its horrors as its way of making history come alive. But it’s not exactly cheerful reading for a lunch break, so it sat around my living room for a while before getting picked up again.

I’d argue that the story isn’t as much about the Triangle Fire as it is about social conditions that led up to the fire and reforms attempted in the aftermath of the fire. The horrifying events of the fire really only take up about a chapter – it was a quick and deadly.

But to explain how something like this happens, Marrin takes us back through history to set up the day of the fire. He talks about why so many southern Italians and Eastern European Jews came to New York at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, why they worked the jobs they did, and how they lived. He describes changes in the manufacture of clothing, the advent of new technologies and changes in fashion that led to tenement-based sweatshops and later larger operations like the Triangle Waist Factory.

Having set the scene for why there were so many young women working long hours in these factories, he layers in issues like workplace safety – the practice of locking-in workers to deterr late-comers and prevent workers from leaving, the fact that fire-prevention devices had been invented (like overhead sprinklers) but that factory owners weren’t required to use them. In fact, it was more cost-effective to let buildings burn (and the workers in them – there were always more willing to take the jobs) and collect insurance than to take pains to prevent fires. The scene is also set with an account of the garment workers’ strike prior to the fire

Following the fire, Marrin takes us through changes in politics and policies in New York related to the garment industry – some of the immediate aftermath shows the changes brought about by the fire, but the further we get into the 20th century, the less the information seems relevant to the fire (particularly the discussion of organized crime). The final chapter briefly covers how our clothes are made today and the fact that Triangle-like conditions still exist in sweatshops.

These present-day accounts are a chilling footnote to the story, but here Marrin’s tone becomes a bit more opinionated, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves. Throughout the book, in fact, he’s prone to a rather grandiose tone that frequently took me out of the story. The facts he presents are gripping enough without the use of over-wrought language.

Audience is a tricky question for this one – I would say middle school and high school, depending on the reader’s comfort level with occasionally gruesome descriptions. Because the book is so chock-full of different pieces of history, it could be useful to kids researching anything from immigration to working conditions to women’s rights, or for readers interested in the context of the fire.

Source: my public library

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Beauty Queens (Audio CD)Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens is equally awesome and awful. Awesome: the premise of a plane full of beauty pageant contestants crashing on a deserted (or is it?) island, and a narrative structure full of commercial breaks, footnotes explaining fictional pop-culture references, and Libba Bray’s wicked sense of humor.

Not as awesome is the (thin and ridiculous) plot that sags under the weight of too much time spent on flat characters and shoved-in-your-face issues. While flat characters and a ridiculous plot might be exactly what the book calls for, they can’t sustain the bloat of the book. What is laughing-so-hard-you-cry funny can quickly turn to disinterest and annoyance when there’s just too much of everything.

Libba Bray narrates the book herself, which is mostly fantastic (not so much her accents, which she does enthusiastically but terribly). The humor comes across perfect in her voice, and the sound effects that accompany the extras (footnotes, commercials, etc.) help distinguish them, along with her incredible ranges of inflections. A small detail that I particularly loved were the introductions to each disc (I’m not sure what form these take, if any, in the print version) – a high, ditzy voice saying things like “Beauty Queens, disc 5. Oh my gosh, now I’ve used all the fingers on one hand!” or “Beauty Queens, disc 12. I got my period when I was 12…I think.”

In short, if one can be short when talking about a book like Beauty Queens, you might think this is the best book ever. Or you might throw it down in disgust. Or you might be constantly tempted to ditch it, like me, until you suddenly realize that your hatred has turned to respect (mostly). The interview section with the author at the end helped finish things on a sweet note.

I didn’t give this one a star rating because it would either be 1 or 4 stars and anything in between felt wishy-washy.

Source: my public library

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WonderstruckWonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck seems to be “that book” this year – the one that everyone else gushes over but in which I can’t see the same magic. Are the illustrations glorious at times? Is the interplay between the text-story and the picture-story beautifully paced? Yes, and yes. But – neither story felt emotionally resonant at the end. None of the characters leaped off the page as living, breathing people. There were some plot issues, which I won’t get into for fear of spoilers, that distracted me from the potential magic in the ending. To be honest, I had similar feelings about The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but the magic came through more strongly there and the resolution didn’t seem as based on plot holes as here. Still, it gets points because I loved the illustrations and enjoyed reading it.

Source: my public library

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True... Sort ofTrue… Sort of by Katherine Hannigan

I’ll be honest…I expected to hate this one. Or if not hate it, at least be supremely annoyed by it. I’d bought a copy for the library, but based on the reviews I read, I thought it would be one of those books I just wouldn’t read. It didn’t sound “distinguished” and it certainly didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But I picked it up because it was on this year’s Mock Newbery list, and I’m nothing if not thorough about mock awards lists (even though I couldn’t attend this year). It didn’t hurt that a coworker read it and enjoyed it.

Would I vote for it for an award like the Newbery? Probably not. But did I enjoy it and would I recommend it to kids? Definitely. It’s the kind of story that might sound like a problem novel for young readers, but what it really does is show characters learning to be friends, learning to find the good in themselves and to deal with the bad in others. Which makes it sound all didactic, but it never feels that way. The kids feel authentically like kids, even though they sometimes seem to exist in a hyper-reality.

A few small issues: I was so disappointed in Delly’s parents for a while. I don’t think this is something that would bother child readers, but they seemed like good people and I really wanted to see them step up to the plate and help Delly learn to control her impulses, instead of just being disappointed in her constant scrapes. In the end, it was really Delly’s younger brother that helped out the most, although we did see more nuanced sides of the parents later (like the dad’s admission to Delly that he had been like her as a kid). Also, while Delly’s gradual understanding of Ferris’ situation seemed realistic, the fact that the school calmly accepted Ferris’ silence and requests not to ever be touched, without any hint of suspicion or calls to the authorities, was a combination of hard-to-swallow and disappointing.

Despite these problems, the characters themselves were captivating and the book overall was quite enjoyable.

Source: my public library

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(Just FYI, when I typed “tradition” into the post title, I heard it in the voice of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, followed by a musical interlude.)

I got up early this morning to start the dough for a batch of Santa Lucia buns, or Lussekatter as I recently learned they’re called.  My church does a Santa Lucia procession after vespers on the Saturday closest to her feast day (the 13th) – they’ve done it since I was a tiny thing, too young to participate, then the right age to carry a candle, very solemnly, then the right age to play the part of St. Lucy herself. I’m trying to remember if my sister, who is actually a Lucy and has St. Lucy as her patron saint, ever got a turn.

At any rate, I have a soft spot for the tradition but haven’t made it to that vespers in many years.  This year I couldn’t resist the requests for people to bake buns, since I figure that if anything, I should volunteer to help in baking-related duties at church (see: hot cross buns for Palm Sunday). They’re still on their first rise, so I don’t know how they’ll turn out, but hopefully they’ll be delicious and ready before it’s time to go to The Nutcracker this afternoon (speaking of traditions!)

Here’s the recipe I was given to use – no idea where it originally came from.  And yes, apparently Santa Lucia buns count as a valid way to break the fast!

St. Lucia Buns (Lussekatter)

2 pkgs. active dry yeast
1/2 warm water (105-115°)
2/3 cup lukewarm milk (scalded, then cooled)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 margarine or butter softened
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. powdered saffron
5-5 1/2 cups flour, divided (I used about 5 cups and suspect this was a tad too much)
1/2 cup raisins
margarine or butter, softened
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 Tbsp. water
2 Tbsp.sugar

Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir in milk, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup butter or margarine,
2 eggs, cardamom, salt, saffron and 3 cups flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough of
remaining flour to make dough easy to handle. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface;
knead until smooth. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled. Punch down dough;
divide into 24 parts. Shape each piece into an S-shaped rope; curve both ends into a coil.
Place raisin in the center of each coil. Place rolls on greased cookie sheet.
Brush tops lightly with butter; let rise until doubled. Mix 1 egg and 1 tablespoon water; brush buns lightly.
Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar. Bake at 350° for 15-20 minutes. Makes 24 buns.

I thought I’d do a little catch-up on what I read in November, since I haven’t been good about writing it all up as I go.  I posted about my slump a while back, and I don’t think I ever quite recovered from it – at least in terms of speed and quantity, although there have been a few great books along the way.

  • Icefall by Matthew Kirby – as I said before, this is pretty fabulous.  I loved the claustrophobic atmosphere and the way Kirby kept me guessing, even through the dramatic conclusion.  It’s not fantasy, but it as a lot of the same appeal factors in terms of world-building and tension.
  • The Boy at the End of the World by Greg van Eekhout – a lot of fun, and it will be easy to recommend to young scifi/futuristic fans, but it was a let-down compared to Icefall.
  • After Hamelin by Bill Richardson – enjoyable, but it never quite caught me up in its magic (this one was for bookgroup).  Funny, though – last night I was talking to a now-college-student who was in the bookgroup long ago, before my time, and they read the book then, and it made such an impression on him that he told me about it out of the blue (while I was helping him try to remember historical fiction he’s read, for a class).
  • Marty McGuire by Kate Messner – an awesome, funny short chapter book that begs to be handed to young tom boys (and maybe the princessy girls, too, to see what life is like for other girls, and I think most boys would enjoy it, too).
  • A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todda character-driven mystery set in WWI, perfect for those of you waiting for the next Maisie Dobbs, or for people who like thoughtful historical mysteries in general.  I think I like this series more than Maisie.
  • Captive Queen by Alison Weir – here’s what I said in my Goodreads review: “Interesting enough to keep me reading, but it was never quite satisfying. Part of this is probably due to the fact that true stories don’t always make the best novels, but I had a hard time developing real interest in the characters. The sense of history and the world of Eleanor was great, but the rest was more mediocre. By the time I reached that conclusion, I was so far into the book that I figured I should just finish it.”
  • Strings Attached by Judy Blundell – I loved the atmosphere and mood, and found the characters intriguing.  The resolution felt a little disjointed and not as satisfying as I hoped.
  • An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd – back to the Bess Crawford series for another satisfying installment.  The fact that I love this time period doesn’t hurt, but I’m also drawn to the mysteries that are as much about human emotion as they are about solving crimes.
  • This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel – the only audio book I managed to finish in November (seriously?)  I didn’t give it the attention it deserved, since I listened while distracted at the gym, but what I did absorb I really enjoyed.  Goodreads review here.
  • Hidden by Helen Frost – this is off this year’s OLA/WLA Mock Newbery, which I will (sob) not be attending due to a previous engagement with (yay!) The Nutcracker and two young ladies who will see it for the first time.  However, I’m still trying to read through the list and I’m glad because otherwise I might have missed this one.  It’s gripping from page one and one of those verse novels that justifies its existence as a verse novel (ie, not just prose broken up randomly into shorter lines).
  • Tighter by Adele Griffin – which just made me think I should really get around to reading The Turn of the Screw (should I?)

And then suddenly it was December!  Yikes.  Time to sort out which Christmas traditions I can squeeze into our schedule (and a tiny apartment).  We skipped a tree last year, but I’m itching for a smallish one that will fit on the end table and hold a few of my lighter ornaments.  We have stockings to hang (off the bookshelf with cheer) and there will be Christmas cookies and a little party in the week between Christmas and New Years.  Just the words “little party” make me feel all warm and cozy (especially if there are cookies and leftover-from-the-wedding sparkling wine along with good company).  I just have to figure out how to fit more than four people at a time in the apartment.

A quick word on this year’s Thanksgiving baking: as usual, I brought desserts.  I wasn’t sure how many of the other 20-ish guests were bringing dessert, so I went a little crazy.

  • Banana Ice Cream with Caramelized White Chocolate Freckles, from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home.  I’d never had banana ice cream before, but for some reason this recipe jumped out at me.  It was a HUGE hit.  Plus, I was a big fan of how she does her recipes – clear instructions that are ordered well – she tells you what to have prepped in advance and that made it all come together smoothly.  I have the book out of the library, where it (of course) has holds, so it will go back this week – but I might have to get myself a copy before too long, to keep David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop company on my shelf.  Oh, and I have half of the white chocolate bombe shell leftover, and the only question is which recipe to use it in/on?  Dark chocolate for contrast?  Something tart for a different kind of contrast?
  • Caramel Pumpkin Pie, from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking.  This was like darker, slightly more intense pumpkin pie.  I made it the morning of, with limited time, and the sugar took forever to caramelize, so I may not have gotten it quite as dark as would be ideal.  The flavor of the pie ended up being a nice balance between pumpkin and caramel.  I’d make it again, but not prebake the crust as long as she calls for (I used her Good for Almost Everything Pie Dough, in my brand-spanking-new food processor, and it was marvelously flaky but a bit too browned).
  • My Favorite Pecan Pie, also from Baking.  It earned the title.  Mark and I fought out who would have the last piece.  The espresso powder adds just the right hint of coffee flavor, and the dark chocolate chunks are perfect against the gooey filling.  Plus pecans are awesome.  I ended up keeping this one at home, which was a good call since there were tons of desserts to go around at dinner.
  • Double Apple Bundt Cake, again from Baking.  Big and moist and tasty, and a nice option for non-traditional-dessert people.  I didn’t ice it, but I kind of wish I had (I think the lemon icing would make a nice contrast to the sweet apple flavors).  I used Granny Smiths.

It’s a little bit of torture to write this all up now, in the midst of the Advent fast (no meat or dairy, fish generally allowed on the weekends).  It’s never my best fast – the rest of the world is firmly into holiday treat mode – but I’m doing pretty well with Lenten dinners.  Let’s not talk about the cream in my coffee, and just focus on the mujadara and vegetarian chili.  And now it’s time to decide which Christmas cookies to bake this year (I’ve been wishing I had a nice big expanse of counter to roll out sugar cookies and gingerbread).

December 2011

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