Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Speed reading

I wonder what authors think when they hear a reader say, "I read your book in one evening!" On one hand, it must be lovely for authors to learn that they've written a book someone can't put down. On the other hand, if it took years for them to write their books, I can't help thinking that they might get irritated that the reader couldn't slow down a bit to appreciate all the effort that went into the writing. I'm not a very fast reader, but when I get caught up in a good book, I'm one of those people who will spend an entire day off or a long evening plowing through it... which explains why I've read two books in just over two days: Dough: A Memoir by Mort Zachter and Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich. I hope the authors don't mind the speed with which I read their respective stories.

Of the two, Dough is probably the one that will have to work harder to find a wide audience; it seems like the type of book that will get lost unless someone champions it, and I'm more than willing to be that someone. Dough is the story of the author's two uncles, his mother's brothers, who for years owned and ran a bakery in NYC. Both the uncles, who shared a tenement apartment together, and the author's family, living in another tenement, struggled to make ends meet. Zachter never thought of his family as poor, but there never seemed to be money for anything extra. Thus, to say he was "surprised" to learn that his uncles had socked away more than six million dollars, and that his parents had known about the money but never asked for any of it, even in times of great need, is a gross understatement. At first he is overcome with anger, that he never knew he might have been able to go to his uncles for a loan for law school, and that his mother, who gave up a teaching career she loved to help out in "the Store," was never paid in anything but baked goods. How he comes to understand the mystery that was his uncles' lives and to be at peace with what their miserly ways cost his family is at the heart of this gentle, amusing and unusual memoir. I enjoyed this book tremendously and hope you'll give it a chance when it releases in paperback later this summer. You can hear a short interview with Mort Zachter on NPR here.

I picked up Made from Scratch at BEA on Saturday and finished it last night. It's a combination of memoir and how-to, and the how-to portion is one of my favorite topics: learning to do for one's self in a rural setting. Jenna Woginrich leaves Knoxville, Tennessee for upstate Idaho when she is offered a lucrative graphic design job. How exactly she ends up on a rented farm, one whose landlord allows her to keep chickens and rabbits but not sheep, is unclear, but she embraces her new life in a big and enthusiastic way. She writes about the satisfaction of producing her first perfect loaf of bread, about the pleasures of buying vintage household objects, about collecting her Angora rabbits' fur to be spun into yarn. Although I'm nearly 20 years her senior and haven't had many of the experiences she's had, I know I'll like her if ever we meet. She, like me, has overplanned her vegetable garden ("Now the idea of one person with that much zucchini kind of nauseates me"); in a couple of passages she betrays an attitude towards kids to which I can relate ("Large wooden spoons are another homestead necessity. I use them for everything, from mixing batter and stirring stew to spanking meddlesome neighborhood children"); it sounds like she and I even collect the same old pattern of Pyrex baking dishes. Woginrich taught herself to play dulcimer and fiddle, and her love of good old-fashioned music permeates her entire book. Today she's living on a farm in Vermont -- I hope someday to be able to read the story of how she ended up there. Made from Scratch won't be out until December, so mark your calendars now so you don't forget. You can check out Jenna's current homesteading adventures on her blog.

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