Reading Roundup for July (Just Under the Wire)

It’s been a busy month but here is what I have read.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa. An 18-year-old aspiring writer named Mario works at a radio station in 1950’s Lima, Peru with an eccentric scriptwriter. Mario meets his Aunt Olga’s sister, Julia, who is 13 years his senior and recently divorced. The two begin a surreptitious relationship. At the same time as the love affair is developing, this funny novel is interspersed with the increasingly bizarre stories by the scriptwriter, with characters shifting, dying, and reappearing. Interesting fact: Llosa’s first wife was his maternal uncle’s sister-in-law Julia, who was ten years older than him. Recommended for Aspiring Writers With a Taste for Cougars.

King of the Wild Suburb: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Guns by Michael A. Messner. “I still wonder, what does a son get from his father, and how does he get it?” Sociologist Michael Messner recounts the ways he first bonded with his father and grandfather through annual hunting trips and how as a teenager he came to abhor hunting. There are no rants against hunters or gun owners. Only a thoughtful examination of one man’s set of relationships with his father and grandfather, and the implications for his own fatherhood. Recommended for Fathers and Sons.

Full Disclosure: Messner is the husband of my wife’s dissertation chair. I have had the pleasure of his and his family’s company.

The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio. The human mind is complicated. Mind-bogglingly complicated. Damasio writes in a mostly lucid manner about how the brain’s structure for emotion and consciousness. I say mostly lucid because medical terms do come up frequently. This is not a quick read, but it more than satisfied my curiosity about what we humans now know about how our own minds work. Damasio relates a number of interesting cases where damage to certain parts of the brain revealed what it can or can not do without those particular sections. Recommended for Human Brains.

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Borders Isn’t Yet Serious About Liquidating Itself

At least as far as I can tell, based on the sale prices offered at the store in Brighton, MI I visited today. Sure the signs all say “Up to 40% off.” But the 40% only applies to greeting cards and magazines. Fiction is 10% off the cover price, along with toys…Philosophy books were 20% off. So if you’ve ever wanted to dive into Sartre or Nietsche…Romance was 30% off. Nora Roberts fans, take note.

Which means, even during a Going Out of Business Sale, in most cases it’s still cheaper to shop at Amazon.com and other competitors for books than at Borders.

If that doesn’t illustrate what brought Borders to its current sad state, I don’t know what else will.

I took my son and daughter with me for the 30+ mile trek. (The closest chain bookstore is a Barnes & Noble in East Lansing. But I usually just shop at the Schuler Books nearby. Schuler’s is a local independent chain.) Upon finding that deals weren’t really to be had, I bought an issue of the New Yorker for myself, a Kung Fu Panda book for my daughter, and a small Star Wars Lego set for my son. Each item for the kids was only 10% off the price. I figured they deserved something for the trouble of being dragged all the way to the Detroit Exurb of Brighton and back.

When we got home, my daughter asked me to carry her from the car to the house. Which is not like her. Then I felt her. She was very warm. After getting her in the house and taking her temperature, it turns out that she has a 100 degree temperature. So we’ll be taking it easy this afternoon. Cars is currently playing on the TV via the DVD copy we’ve watched way more than 40 times.

I’m sure Borders will have even more markdowns as the weeks go on. But I won’t be bothering to make the trip. I’m going back to finding bargains for books and other things the New Old-Fashioned Way: online.

A Lawn in the Sky

If you have $2.6 million you can own this penthouse condo in the South Loop of Chicago. Not only does it have a terraced outdoor space, it has a lawn.

Seriously.

You can see more pictures and information on the listing at Koenig & Strey.

When my wife I were first married, I told her I never wanted a house with a yard bigger than those in the bungalow belt in Chicago, the kind you can cut with a push mower with a few brisk walks across the lawn. Instead, we have a house on a plot that’s about a third of an acre with many trees. It’s nice and pretty and there is a lot of space for the kids to run around. But it’s also a lot of lawn to mow.

I suppose though that if you can afford a $2.6 million penthouse condo unit, that you can afford to pay someone to care for your rooftop lawn. I’d install a hammock of some kind. Laying around in my hammock reading with the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan as my backdrop would be quite soothing…I’d better go buy some Lottery tickets!

[Hat tip: Sloopin’ ]

The Vultures Will Soon Be Picking at Borders

Myself included. Book bargains coming soon

The Borders Group said Monday that it would liquidate, shutting down the 40-year-old bookseller after it failed to find a last-minute savior.

[snip]

Publishers, disheartened by the news, had watched Borders’ troubles deepen for years. After the bookseller declared bankruptcy in February, many publishers pressed for a reorganization plan, but they were left unconvinced that executives had a workable way to revamp the company.

Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale last fall, but has yet to find a buyer. It seems no one wants to own a bricks and mortar chain of bookstores. So it can’t be much of a surprise that no one has a “workable way to revamp” Borders.

Who’s doing well because of this? Independent bookstores. At least, the ones still left standing after a two decade onslaught from the big chains.

At Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, Wis., sales rose 20 percent in June and July after a Borders several miles away went out of business, said Lanora Hurley, the owner.

Other than increased business at independent bookstores and bargains at the liquidation sales for buyers, there is nothing good about this. Borders currently employs over 10,000 people across the country. Those 10,000 people will soon be without a job.

So I Like to Bake Pies. What’s It to Ya?

Summer in Michigan means it’s pie-making season. But in a stereotypically contrarian Slate piece a few weeks ago we are told that “Pie Sucks.” (I’m waiting for Slate to declare “Online News is Dead! Long Live Print!”)

Who but a sadist would take a basket of ripe seasonal fruit and bake it into mush? Who would labor over flaky pastry crust that’s destined to get soaked before it’s ever tasted? Unlike the tart, which sits low and topless in a shallow pan with a svelte layer of topping, pie requires a hefty piece of bakeware with outward-sloping sides, practically dooming the pastry to collapse. And unlike a torte—a short and modest cake combining fruit and nuts in balanced proportions—most modern pies rely on giant reservoirs of loose filling or inches of piled custard and whipped cream. A slice of strawberry tart with coffee is the perfect overture to a postprandial drink, a late conversation, or a night of love. Eat an oozing slice of strawberry pie, and it’s time to look for Tums and go to bed.

I don’t know what kind of pies Mr. Heller has been eating, but I’ve never required a Tums after eating a slice of pie. I would venture to say that if you don’t enjoy eating pie, you don’t enjoy eating.

Plus, I enjoy not just eating pies, but baking them.

Baking is one of those things I found I liked by accident. Had I not become a stay-at-home-dad, I never would have found out that I enjoyed baking. Because had I not become a stay-at-home dad I don’t know that I ever would have attempted to bake anything.

It started with pre-made cookie dough bought at the store. They were okay. I found them to be hard-chewy and not the delicious soft-chewy of fresh-baked cookies.

So I wondered, “Well, how difficult is it to make your own cookie dough?”

Not hard at all. I asked my mother what recipe she used for making chocolate chip cookies. She said the Nestle recipe but with another 1/3 cup of flour. This gives the cookies a bit more heft. I also use Ghirardelli chocolate chips in place of Nestle chips.

I like making the batter for various kinds of cookies. The kids like this, too, especially because I let them lick the batter off the mixing beater, which my mother used to let my sister and I do. Even now, I still take a lick or two of batter off the beater.

Back to pies.

Two years ago, my wife bought a lot of blueberries from our local farmer’s market. After using them on cereal, on pancakes, and in muffins, I decided, what the hell, we have so many left I’ll use the rest to bake a pie. I need to do something different.

I pulled out our very tattered and banged up copy of The Joy of Cooking from the shelf and read up on making pies.

Notice the burn marks on the side and that the binding is falling off?

We didn’t have any lard, but we had plenty of butter, so I opted for the flaky butter crust (pâte brisée). I only had time to make the dough that night. So I made the dough and put it in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, I got up early and rolled out the dough to make the crust. Then I made the filling. This is the pattern I still use for making the crust; mixing the dough at night then refrigerating it, then rolling the dough out in the morning and baking the pie. It’s what works for me.

(BTW, I find that egg yolk brushed on the bottom of the crust keeps it from getting soaked if the ingredients are wetter than usual.)

In the morning my wife asked me what I was doing and I said I was making a pie.

“You made your own crust?” she said with wonder, astonishment, and concern all in one tone.

“Yes,” I said, as if it was the most normal thing to do, despite never before having baked a pie or made my own pie crust.

“You do realize that no one makes their own pie crusts, right?”

“Really? They don’t?” I said, wholly clueless.

“Yes, because it’s a lot of work making your own crust.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.” For some reason, it had not seemed out of the ordinary to me to chop up two sticks of butter and work fast to cut the pieces into the flour quickly before the butter melted (until they’re pea-sized) and then do the same with the shortening, then cut cold water into this mixture with a spatula, all the while paying careful attention to the consistency, work the dough with my hands to form two large round discs which, wrap the discs in cling wrap to chill overnight, then in the morning scrupulously clean the kitchen counter, cover it with flour and use a rolling pin to roll out the two discs to make the shell and top for the pie, which were put in the fridge again as I prepared the blueberry filling.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s why most people just buy the pre-made pie crusts at the store.”

Too late. I had no idea making your own pie crust was hard. I just did it by closely following the directions in The Joy of Cooking.

After putting in the filling, covering the pie, and crimping the edges, I baked the pie.

My wife tasted that first pie and was blown away, running to Facebook to say something along the lines that she thought she had married a pastry chef. Compliments are great, especially coming from your wife. I’ve gone on to make cherry, strawberry-rhubarb, and apple pies, always making my own crusts. I like the crusts I make better than those on the pies of that much-loved Michigan staple known as the Grand Traverse Pie Company. My goal this summer is to get some leaf lard to use in pie crusts. So far, it looks like I’ll have to drive all the way to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor to get some.

I love to bake pies because I love to eat the results, a la mode or not, after dinner, in the afternoon, or even for breakfast. Oh, don’t turn your nose up at the latter. What’s better for you for breakfast: a donut or a slice of fruit pie? They’re both sweet and go well with coffee.

So call me a “sadist” when it comes to fruit pies. I can live with that.