Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger (2000)

I got myself a bread maker last year when I found a super sale on and I bought The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger (2000) to help walk me through some of the science and art of bread machine baking.

I realize bread machines are a little out-of-fashion, and I do have non-machine bread baking experience -- I really enjoy it, but almost never do it because I don't feel like I have the time / don't want to heat up the kitchen / don't think about it. I also am not totally satisfied with the browning capabilities of my current oven -- it just doesn't do bread that well. My lovely bread machine though, is so easy! I get the feeling of accomplishment from making a homemade loaf of bread without getting myself and the kitchen totally covered with flour, and the enclosed little oven doesn't heat up the kitchen and browns the bread just the way I ask it to.

This book is an exhaustive look at all the things you can do in your bread machine and includes recipes for pretty much every kind of bread or roll or pastry or dough that I've ever heard of. Hensperger is an accomplished and enthusiastic baker (both with and without the machine) and her notes on ingredients, baking processes, baking science, and the history of different kinds of bread are fascinating. I actually read the whole cookbook!

One qualm is that she insists on using SAF or bread machine yeast, which is hard to find now that the bread machine is passé and no one wants to eats carbs or gluten anymore. I just wing it with regular yeast and it seems fine. The best tip I got from this book was to add in a tablespoon or so of gluten in with the flour. It really improves the texture of the bread in the machine and gives it more of a non-machine lift and texture. You can buy gluten in a bag in the baking aisle -- it felt so scandalous to buy an entire bag of gluten from a shelf right next to the gluten free baking mixes!

In short: I love bread, I love my bread machine, and I think if you like bread in any form, you'd probably like this book.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, by Sam Weller (2010)

I'm pretty sure everyone on the planet is a fan of Ray Bradbury, but no one is a bigger fan than Sam Weller, author of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews (2010) unless, of course, you count Bradbury himself.

Yes, Bradbury did not suffer from a lack of self-confidence, but in the older man in these interviews that trait is more endearing than irritating. And, you know, he comes by it honestly. Weller organizes this series of rambling interviews both chronologically through Bradbury's life and by the topics that fascinated the man. He talks frankly about his personal and professional life, sex, his childhood, his fascinations, and his disappointments. His is a life story that doesn't seem possible anymore: an idyllic childhood in the midwest, coming of age near a Hollywood bursting with relatively accessible stars and artists, and being a writer at a time when you really could seal a contract with a handshake and pave your pathway to success with confidence and hard work.

Bradbury is full of extremely strong opinions, only about half of which I'm really on the same page about (and some of which he seems to make up on the spot), but as you forgive the aggressive confidence and the single-mindedness, you forgive these too. I mean, the man wrote The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, innumerable short stories, and more. He created a mythology for himself and then lived it. His literary kind of science fiction is hard to emulate and even harder not to like. He really was a writer, in a way that most writers are not.

Bradbury died in 2012, but Weller's journey with his hero continues on his blog for the book, including the heartbreaking news that the Bradbury house that is lovingly chronicled here has been sold and demolished. There really isn't room for Bradburys in Los Angeles anymore.

Finally, as an aside, this book was published by Stop Smiling, a defunct Chicago-based magazine that was one of the very best, which morphed into a book publisher. They haven't put anything out in years, but I keep hoping for a comeback. Come back, guys!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

My lovely friend Joolie loaned me her copy of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966) after I mentioned I'd always wanted to read it. Of course, when I got it home I realized that Dr. M already had a copy, but that didn't stop me from hanging on to Joolie's copy forever and finally reading it. Thanks, Joo!

And, as anticipated, I really really liked this one. After the Clutter family was murdered in their home in small-town Western Kansas in 1959, Capote and his friend, Harper Lee, traveled to Kansas with the idea that he could write about the crime and the investigation. He quickly became close to the lead investigator and was able to get significant details about the crime and the family. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith were found and arrested about six weeks after the murders, after a trip to Florida, Mexico, California, and eventually back to Kansas. Capote was able to closely interview the killers as well, and kept in touch with them through their long stay on death row up until their executions in 1965. When Capote published his book in 1966 it quickly became a best seller and is still the best selling true crime book of all time.

By today's standards, this is not anywhere near unbiased journalism, and from some cursory online research, it sounds like some facts of the murders and the lives of the townspeople and killers were exaggerated or skipped over for narrative effect. In the book itself, we get zero acknowledgement of Capote and Lee as the interviewers or writers -- the narrative unravels like a novel, bouncing between the Clutters, Hickock and Smith, and the investigation. I'd love to know more about what Capote actually did as he was researching this book and a lot more about Harper Lee's contributions (this dissertation, for example, sounds fascinating). I saw the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie a few years ago (and I'd like to see it again having read the book), but I'm not sure what sources that version of Capote's methods is based on. I'm sure there is a great biography of Capote out there, and I'd love to read it.

Of course, regardless of how he did it and how much the book really reflects what happened, this is a wonderfully written and engrossing piece of fiction/non-fiction. It makes you feel hopeful and hopeless at the same time, and does a nice job of making both the "good" and "evil" characters complex and human, without making excuses for the murders or making the victims into saints. If you (like me) somehow got through life without reading this before, you should probably pick it up soon. I have a copy I can loan you...