Friday, May 31, 2013

Confessions of a Canadian Bread Baker

 Last week, when I was reading this:

I couldn't stop thinking about bread. Real bread. Homemade bread. And then while trawling the stacks of my Public Library, I stumbled upon this:
No. Not the bread - the book. Confessions of a French Baker: Secrets, Tips, and Recipes, by Peter Mayle and Gerard Auzet (2005). It is a short (91 pages) little (17 x 14 cm) gem of a book that is part cookbook, part armchair travelogue, and part narrative history of bread-making in the Provencal town of Cavaillon. Perfect for anyone, like myself, who loves books, food, and travel.
I happen to love this type of book. Do you know what I mean? When the reader is lulled into a slow-paced world where time is almost suspended. The descriptive tone makes the reader feel as if he or she is sitting at an outdoor cafe and listening to the tales of the narrator, a glass of wine or a cup of espresso in hand. Mayle's A Year in Provence falls into this category, as well as Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. As an aside, I read Tuscan Sun while on a long car journey with an Italian couple who had originated from Tuscany. Long before the film came out; which I still have yet to see, it was a book that I read in little chunks and I savoured every morsel. When I needed clarification or expansion on something I was reading, I just asked Concetta. And if reading made me hungry, there was no shortage of food opportunities with those two. This is why it was a long journey - we had to stop and eat every few hours. Oh, and Mayes' A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller - another one of those books that is savoured, rather than devoured. I just didn't want it to end because it was like leaving these locales.
But back to Confessions.  Mayle provides a short history of the five-generation Auzet family that has been baking bread in this area near Avignon since the late nineteenth century. He then takes the reader inside the present boulangerie as he is invited to have a personal bread-baking tutorial with proprietor, Gerard Auzet. I definitely felt as if I was sitting and having an easy conversation with Mayle as he detailed his experience. Here is an example of his prose:
He passed me the loaf, and I gave it a novice's tap. Now that warm air had expanded the dough, the baguette felt light, almost hallow, rather than dense. I gave it a squeeze: firm, but yielding. I gave it a sniff. Mmmm. It made me wonder what time bakers had breakfast. I hoped it was soon.
Once the shelves are filled, tables and chairs are set out on the pavement. It's taken for granted that the sun will shine all day, just as it has been doing for the past three months. Outdoor blinds and shutters are folded back from the display window, and the first soft gray light of dawn seeps into the shop. The door is fixed open. Chez Auzet is ready for business. 
 Mayle's conversational tone is enhanced with his sprinkling of French vocabulary in his dialogue. I find this quite typical of people who are living in a country that has a language other than one's own native tongue. He doesn't provide a translation, which I think keeps it authentic and would just break up the narrative. For the most part, the meaning is easily inferred or is common knowledge, in my opinion.

As the subtitle indicates, Confessions also provides recipes - lots of bread recipes. With illustrations, tips, and step-by-step instructions. Although I would never consider myself a bread maker, I have made bread on many occasions. For some reason I never got into that whole 90's bread-making machine craze. It's probably because the part I like most about break-making is the kneading And the fact that I get to use my special bread/pie pastry/gingerbread floured tea towel that I have used since I was a young wife. I don't know why, but I channel my inner Little Nanny every time I get that thing out of it's special bag where it stays rolled up until I am ready to create something delicious again.
 One morning we made bread before school so Daughter1 could bring it into her kindergarten class for Show and Tell. She carefully pulled out the still-warm, yummy-smelling loaf, and after unwrapping it she went around the class letting them see and smell the bread while she explained the procedure involved in making it. Sound, sight, smell, and maybe even touch were involved in this activity, but she would not let them taste the bread. No way -  not  even after many attempts were made to get her to change her mind. When she left for school I just assumed that she would share the loaf with her small class, and I was surprised when she returned home with it intact. No, she wanted it all to herself. And besides, "it's 'Show and Tell'; not 'Show and Taste''' she reminded me.
And so I found myself baking bread again yesterday - this time a classic baguette following the directions given in Confessions. It still belies all rationality that flour, salt, yeast, and water can combine to create something so délicieux. But you may just have to try it yourself!
You may be wondering what happened with Jodi Picoult's book which opened this post. You will have to stay tuned. More to come in my upcoming Summer Reads post.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cuddle-up Summer

The other day I stumbled upon this.

A mom with her toddler and pre-schooler had just left the Public Library, only steps away. She spread out a blanket on the lush green grass of the Square and sat down. The toddler quickly scrambled onto her lap, while the older child snuggled in closely. Out of a bag came a stack of books.

I sat at a discreet distance away and couldn't help but take a snap of this image. This is a place where I often come to read. It is a peaceful space, and yet right in the thick of things too. If you know what I mean. This young family was oblivious to all the goings-on around them though. They were totally engrossed in the books and in the moment.

For the most part my children did not grow up in this city. They grew up on the shores of Lake Huron, where we literally did beach reads almost every sunny summer day. It was a pretty awesome way to pass the time in July and August. I am sure, had we been here when Daughter1, Daughter2, and OnlySon were little, we would have spent many afternoons pouring over our new library books right in this same spot.

That got me thinking about some of the books in our own home library that have made great cuddle-up-on-a picnic-blanket books.

For Younger Children

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein - does it need a comment?

The Tree That Grew to the Moon by Eugenie Fernandes - our family has always been great fans of Fernandes and her illustrations. This one is perfect for a hot summer day in the city.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault - just in case your audience is getting a little sleepy and you want to wake them up so they will have their nap at home (thereby giving you your me-time). This one is just silly and fun.

For Older Children

Jessie's Island and Waiting for the Whales, both by Sheryl McFarlane (different illustrators) - beautiful language and rhythm to each of these books. And a message.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit - a chapter a day under the shade of a big maple tree sounds like a great way to enjoy this classic.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling - could come in a close second to how I was introduced to Hogwarts. Mr. Fun had gone ahead to a new job in a new city. OnlySon was playing on a Travel Baseball team which required a lot of travel and took us to all corners of our county. That summer the children took turns reading Harry aloud in the car as we travelled to the ball games. Great Memories!

Do you have a favorite cuddle-up summer read-aloud? Any special reading plans for the summer?

Friday, May 17, 2013


In the past five months, I along with countless others worldwide, have been captivated by our very own Canadian in space - Commander Chris Hadfield. I haven't been able to get enough of his tweets, his photos and his YouTube videos. As I watched his return to Earth the other night, I was thinking of one word - cooperation. One American, one Canadian, one Russian, and  an enormous team of men and women from all different nationalities were responsible for this unbelievable endeavour. To think of all the time that was spent on the Space Race - the United States and the Soviet Union fiercely competing to conquer space. It is true. Competition is often a good thing. But the image of the three astronauts sitting side by side after being removed from the Russian-made Soyuz capsule made me think that together we can achieve so much more.

Yesterday I watched as Commander Hadfield greeted the media in a Question and Answer session. I don't know why I was surprised at his commanding use of the French language. Of course he would speak French! And it is no surprise that he reads poetry either. During the press conference Hadfield quoted a line by Rudyard Kipling from the poem If. I was vaguely familiar with the poem, but looked it up to reacquaint myself.  I would venture a guess and say that not only is our Commander the definition of a lifelong learner, but that he is also a "Man."  


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!


Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday Musings

Happy Monday!

I definitely took the road less travelled today.

I usually have a particular route or destination in mind when I head out on my walks. I walk quite briskly and I walk with purpose. Today, something made me turn into the forest and follow some of the lesser-travelled paths. Today I was a wanderer. I thought of the J.R.R. Tolkien quote, "not all who wander are lost."

Consequently, not a lot of reading got done today. And here's the problem: my current read is from the public library. It is on a long hold list, so there are no renewals. It is checked out to Daughter1 who was travelling in Scotland and could not read it when it first became available. Now she wants me to finish it quickly and pass it on to her so she doesn't revert back to delinquent borrower status.

 Part of the problem lies in the fact that I am not totally enjoying Zelda. I want to like it, and I do like it enough to want to continue. It's just that ....I'd rather wander around in a forest. I had such high hopes. I loved Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, and Midnight in Paris was an awesome film. I thought that Zelda would put me back into that world, but it's just not doing it - yet, anyway.

What about you? What does it take to give up on a book without finishing it?  At what point do you feel too invested to give up? What has been your experience when you have gone back to books that were abandoned earlier? I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tea Time

Tea parties have always had a particular allure with us, as I'm sure they have with people the world over. Whether they included the pink plastic Fisher-Price  tea set with which my girls played endlessly, or the real china cups that we have collected from special family members; whether our guests were our favorite dolls and stuffed animals, or the next-door neighbour, tea time has always been a time to look forward to - a comforting time. A nice cuppa is always in order when a celebration is needed, when a good cry is on the agenda, and everything in between.

Unknown to us at the time, Little Nanny started to tidy things up once she decided that this world was giving her more trouble than she cared to deal with. In the last year of her life she gave a specially-chosen tea cup to each of her granddaughters and great-granddaughters on their birthdays. She came from a time when one tea cup and saucer made a welcome and appreciated bridal shower gift, unlike today when we couldn't possibly set up a house without perfectly - matching place settings for 48 of our closest friends. New brides would invariably then find themselves with a collection of unique cups and saucers. We had no idea, but what a memorable way to pass on her treasures!

After their passing, we also received tea cups from Big Nanny (she was taller than Little Nanny, and God bless her she was always a great sport for getting that moniker) and from Mr. Fun's Gramma. And although I do have several matching sets of teacups to use, I often use all the mismatched ones for big family meals like birthdays. In a small way, it's like we are setting a place for these very special women at our table. We shared many, many wonderful cups of tea with them and it is so important to still have them with us.

 A very fun picture book I read this week is Tea Rex, by Molly Idle (Viking, 2013). It would make a great cuddle-up and read book because there is so much humour to be found in a close inspection of the illustrations. Not only will it appeal to tea party lovers, but dinosaur enthusiasts will be enchanted as well. Older children will appreciate the play on words.

I had a "big, fat idea" (to borrow from the late, great Mr. Dressup) to use Tea Rex in somewhat of a Teddy Bears' Picnic scheme. I can envision an actual tea party with some of my younger students (milk with a little tea added?), We would invite favorite toy dinosaurs to join us, and feature lots of our favourite dinosaur books. As in Ms. Idle's book, it would be a nice time to review tea party etiquette. Perfect for both boys and girls. I think it might be enjoyable to have a parent or special guest join each student. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Victory Day!

Today (May 8) is VE (Victory in Europe) Day in Canada - marking the 68th anniversary of the end of WWII. Sadly, a large number of Canadians are unaware of this. It is not a public holiday. (As an aside, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa was officially opened on VE Day in 2005. If you are ever in Ottawa it is a must-see.) In Russia it is a different story. Victory Day is celebrated on May 9. It culminates a week of holidays, and it is a big deal! One of the events that I am most happy to have participated in was Victory Day in Moscow.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Daughter1 had lived and worked in Moscow for a year. She planned her vacation time that year around the Victory Day holidays and Mr. Fun and me headed to Russia to visit her. Now Daughter1 has been a serious Russophile since she was a child. All things Russian, all the time. Although I had had little interest in the country before, her enthusiasm has always been difficult to ignore.

The week leading up to Victory Day was spent in St. Petersburg (Leningrad during the Soviet period). We took the overnight train north from Moscow. When we walked out of Moscow Station we were greeted by a building with a huge sign that read "Hero City."  It wasn't until later that I came to understand what this city endured during The 900-day Siege that saw nearly three-quarters of a million civilians starve to death. It is truly deserving of the name.

Preparing for Victory Day in St. Petersburg
Winter Palace Square

The Bronze Horseman
(Peter the Great)

We returned to Moscow the day before Victory Day. In our absence, spring had sprung. It was the most beautiful day as we took the metro toward Red Square. A festive spirit filled the air. The streets were closed to traffic and people were everywhere. It was a huge celebration.  We were touched beyond words at the sight of people offering flowers to veterans; thanking them for their service and sacrifice, and asking to have their photo taken with them. It was unlike anything I had witnessed before. Daughter1 gives an excellent description of the day on her blog, The Devushka Diary, which she kept while living in Russia. Victory Day was also our last day in Russia. About midnight, when the fireworks were over, we headed for Domodedovo Airport.

An image from Anna Reid's Leningrad
  with photo of Daughter1 meeting veteran at Red Square, Moscow
I hope I have piqued your interest because it really is a fascinating culture and history. And now for some great book recommendations.

Reid, Anna. Leningrad: tragedy of a city under siege, 1941-44. Penguin, 2011. 492 p.


Audience: Adult

Ms. Reid uses a large number of newly-found diaries to paint a very human portrait of daily life during the siege. Images are very detailed and descriptive; yet, they are backed by statistics and facts. She concentrates on the first siege winter of 1941-42 when more than 100,000 Leningraders were dying each month. She succeeds in letting these heroes tell their own story.

Dunmore, Helen. The Siege. London: Penguin, 2001.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Audience: Adult

I loved, loved, loved this novel. It was the first book  I read about Leningrad after returning from Russia, and it was what really made the siege come alive for me. You cannot help but feel as if you are surviving (barely) along with the characters. It is beautifully written, and as I discovered after reading Ms. Reid's Leningrad, very historically accurate. You will have unbelievable respect for the people who lived through this dark period. Sequel: The Betrayal (also recommended).

Simons, Paullina. Bronze Horseman (1st in Tatiana and Alexander trilogy) HarperCollins, 2001.

Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction

Audience: Adult

If you are a Romance fan, this is the book for you. It has often been called "the Russian Thornbirds, " if that provides a clearer picture. If you have even the slightest romantic bone in your body, you will fall in love with Tatiana and Alexander. I couldn't get enough of this story - at the beginning anyway. Yes, the foreplay is waaaay too long. But for historical setting (again, very accurate. Ms Simons is a native of St. Petersburg) and character attachment this is a recommended chick lit read. I was as invested in Tatiana and Alexander as I was in Diana Gabaldon's Claire and Jamie, if you are familiar with her Outlander series. Unfortunately my interest faded in the second installment. That early magic between the two protagonists just could not be sustained or repeated for me. Watch for Tatiana and Alexander to hit the big screen, or so the rumours say.

If you are reading this in Russia - Happy Victory Day to you. I wish I could express how much I enjoyed my visit to your country. Spasiba


Monday, May 6, 2013

When Will This Stop?

The first thing that I needed to address, before launching into any kind of review of Susin Nielsen's The Reluctant Journal of Henry K, Larsen, was whether it would have spoilers or not. Would I speak in vague terms and just touch the surface? Or would I get right into the meat of the story and then be free to discuss all some of the themes and issues that jumped out at me and made Henry an emotional read for me?

I have read books that have made a real impact on me because I knew little about the story and did not expect what was coming. A recent example is What Happened to Ivy by Kathy Stinson. All I had was a recommendation from a colleague. I literally gasped while reading this Young Adult novel at a part that I later found contained in many brief plot summaries. I am so happy that I had not read anything about the story beforehand.

Henry is such a book. The less you know going into it, the greater your reading experience will be. However, because I need to talk about some of the deeper complexities of the story, I have decided that I will include MAJOR SPOILERS in this review. Please, if you have not yet read Henry, do yourself a favour and get a copy. It is a quick and easy read technically. I found myself putting it down for awhile to catch my breath, get a tissue, and hug my children.

Come back and join me when you're done.

First of all, I found Henry in the general Fiction section of the Children's department at my public library. I had heard only that it dealt with a heavy subject and would be an intermediate (grades 7 and 8) read. I was a little surprised that it was not shelved in the Young Adult stacks. After reading it I was even more surprised. I found the plot, themes, and language suitable for an older audience. A quick check of some standard reviewers gave the following suggestions:
  • Kirkus - age 12+
  • School Library Journal (starred review) - Grades 5+
  • Booklist - Grades 5-8
You be the judge, but when I purchase a copy of The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen it will be catalogued as a YA book and will be available to Intermediate students only.

If you are ignoring my suggestion and proceeding before reading this winner of the 2012 Governor General's Award for Fiction you should know the basic plot line. Henry K. Larsen is a 13-year-old boy who has just moved with his dad to a new city in the hopes of starting over after IT happened. The journal is his therapist's suggestion. Henry is not keen on the idea; thus the reluctant adjective. In bits and pieces Ms. Nielsen reveals to us that  IT refers to the day that Henry's older brother, Jesse took their father's gun to school and shot and killed his tormentor before turning the gun on himself. IT was also the beginning of the unravelling of Henry's family. His mom is now in a psychiatric facility in Ontario, while Henry and his dad have relocated to the city of Vancouver in the hopes that they won't be recognized.  For sure, it is a timely topic and should promote a lot of discussion. Bullying, belonging, gun control, suicide, grief, blame, guilt, family crises, recovery - it is all found in this book.

Ms. Nielsen's use of humour, through the narrator of Henry, somehow helps to soften the serious tone of the story. I am not sure how she does it, but a crafty balance has been achieved. On the very first page Henry gives a physical description of his psychologist, followed by what he wants to say to him: "Hey Cecil ...  the 60's called.They want their look back." Similar observations are sprinkled throughout his journal. It is in the darker side of his humour that the reader sees his attempt at dealing with his grief. He writes:

     Questions I would like to ask Jesse:
  1. Why did you do it, you dick?
  2. Did you ever stop to think about what it would do to the rest of us?
  3. Where did you put the Settlers of Catan game, because none of us can find it?
  4. Why did you do it, you dick?

The initial suspense surrounding IT could not help but remind me of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It was the same ominous feeling - you know that something terrible has happened, but you don't know the details or the exact outcome. Even after we have been told about IT, the suspense surrounding April 30 is not revealed until page 200. I love the way that Ms. Nielsen reveals the course of events in small packages. It is so well-written in that sense. The gradual revelation of Henry's "wobblies" and "furies" is another example of her wonderful craft. I have to admit, I was picturing something else for the wobblies before I understood them to be the rolls of fat that Henry has acquired in his recent weight gain.

As nice as the humour is, it doesn't take away all the pain that is found in Henry. And I felt bitter pain. I felt pain for Henry as he goes through his own bullying drama; as he grieves for the loss of his brother, and as he faces the destruction of his family. I felt the pain that each of the characters endures: Henry's parents and grandparents, his new classmates, his neighbours, the victim's family. I got teary when Henry and Farley were bullied. I felt brutally uncomfortable when Henry wrote about being embarrassed by his brother. I cried as Karen shared the story of her father's suicide. But nothing prepared me for reading about April 30.

And that's when I got angry. Why do humans continue to do this to one another? It doesn't stop from one generation to another, and, I hate to say it, but it doesn't stop when you leave high school. Who on this earth declares themselves the almighty judge and decides what personality traits and physical attributes are acceptable or not? Who are these people who get to decide if gingers are in or out? If having acne makes you a social outcast or not?  What the perfect body mass index is? If playing on the soccer team is cool or not? Because really, it is by the grace of God that someone has blonde hair, good skin, perfect measurements, and athletic ability. And, it is by the grace of God that our children are chosen by their peers as acceptable or not. When we hold our babies in our arms, we know that they are perfect gifts from God. There are few words that come close to describing that love. To imagine sending them off into the world with the chance that they be tormented to the degree that Jesse is is just unthinkable. We are all travelling on this journey together. Can't we just support each other along the way? How many more times do we need to hear about someone so ostracized by their peers that their only recourse is checking out? And taking innocent and not-so-innocent people with them?

I am not sure where we go from here. Henry certainly left me with more questions than answers. But if you are looking for a timely, well-written, intermediate read that will invoke introspection and discussion; that can be tied into current events, look no further than The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susan Nielsen. Tundra. 2012. 243 pages.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Preview of What's to Come

Last night I finished this:

And although I had every intention of blogging about it this morning, I need to just sit on it for a day or two. I need to bring it with me on my walk today and let it work it's way around in my head and heart for a bit. I need to think about how I am going to condense my thoughts and feelings into a small enough space that won't turn even the most ardent reader away.
Speaking of the need to condense - I am also hard at work on my Victory Day post. I have so many stories, photos, and books to share about my Victory Day experience. I can hardly wait! North American readers - any idea what I am talking about? And what date that post will appear?
I'm looking at 20 degrees (C) and sun for the next few days - perfect for reading and writing outside. See you Monday.