Monthly Archives: September 2012

Chocolate Cake and Apple Muffins

More results from The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking, by Peter Reinhart. Last night, I trotted out my new Krups coffee grinder for the first time, since the cookbook said that blade coffee grinders make the best flour. From my experiments last night, I can say that I agree. I took all of the almond flour I had already made and sent it through the coffee grinder, and it was much, much finer. Then I ground all of the whole almonds and hazelnuts that I’d bought in the food processor for a while and then finished them in the coffee grinder, and the results were much better than any nut flour I’d made before. It was  a long, slow process, though, mostly because the coffee grinder can only take a small amount of flour at a time, and you have to scrape it out every time. If you let it go too long, you get almond or hazelnut butter, so be careful. I used the food processor first because once, long ago, I broke a blade right off a coffee grinder with whole almonds.

ImageSince I had all that stuff out and the kitchen was already a mess, I decided to make the Chocolate Cream Cheese Cake. The name is deceptive, since it is not a cheesecake, but rather a chocolate cake with cream cheese in the batter. I think a better name would be Cream Cheese Chocolate Cake, but they didn’t ask me. It was not difficult to put together and is baked in a Bundt pan. You have to butter the Bundt pan first, and then put it in the freezer until the batter is made, and then take it out and dust it with flour. Well, my pan was so frozen that the flour just slipped off the sides without sticking. I had to wait until it thawed just a bit for it to stick, but the cake popped right out when it was done, so I guess that’s alright. I had a feeling that something might be wrong when the recipe said that I’d have a “sticky, pourable batter,” but I actually had a sticky, spoonable batter. The only liquids were five eggs, melted butter, and the cream cheese, and I think I measured all of the flours correctly, but it was definitely too stiff. I baked it for the least allowable time, but it was too done. It said that the outside would be “springy,” but it was quite firm. The cake had a crisp crust all around, but the inside was soft when it was warm, chewy when it cooled completely. The flavor is great; sweet and chocolaty. I wish I could figure out how to make it more liquidy. Less flour, perhaps?

This morning, since it finally feels like fall and I had apples from the produce stand near us, I made the Apple ImageCinnamon Muffins. The batter has both unsweetened applesauce and chopped apples in it, and there are walnuts sprinkled on top. Halfway through the baking, we could smell the apples and cinnamon from the living room, and we couldn’t wait until they were done. They were soft inside and very flavorful; a real keeper. You can see that we buttered some of them, but they’re wonderful just plain. Again, they were firmer than expected on the outside, and although I used the minimum time, I think they could have done with less. Also, the recipe said that it would make nine muffins, but I only got six. My muffin tin may have larger cups than theirs, but if I had divided the batter into nine cups, they would have been overbaked.

All of the recipes call for cooking the items halfway, and then rotating the pan and continuing to bake. This made sense for the first two recipes I made, since they called for using two baking pans for the cookies or scones, with one on a lower rack. Obviously, the scones in the back of the bottom rack are going to cook faster, so switching the two cookie sheets and rotating them will give you a more even result. On the other hand, I don’t see the sense of rotating a Bundt pan or one muffin pan. I’m certainly going to try shorter baking times, as well.

As you can see, though, someone has choked down a good bit of cake, and of the six muffins, only one is left. I’m not going to say who ate a third muffin, but I had two. Tomorrow, I plan to try the Lemon Poppy Seed Scones, and if they’re decent, I’ll even bring some to work. If they’re indecent, we’ll have to eat them all up!

Happy baking!

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We Went Dancing!

Wednesday night, our church held a contra dance. Do you know what that is? If you do, you’re way ahead of where I was when I accepted the invitation. Contra dancing is somewhere between square dancing and the patterned dances that you see in Jane Austen movies. Well, let’s say more on the square-dancing side, since they are fast enough to have you gasping and sweating about halfway through the first dance.

We showed up early, at 7:00, so that we could get in on the lessons. A diminutive woman told us the names of the moves and had us demonstrate, which apparently did not go smoothly, since she eventually asked, “Who here has never been to a contra dance before?” About half the room raised their hands, so you knew it wouldn’t be long before sheer bedlam took over. Even more confusing, everything is about boy / girl couples, but there were couples with two girls, one of whom was standing in for a gentleman, since, as Elizabeth Bennet would say, “More than one lady was in want of a partner.” So it was hard to know if you were in the right place.

ImageHowever, after about half an hour, the musicians started, and off we went. The dances were arranged so that the first one was the easiest, and they grew in complexity as the night went on. I had already danced out of my shoes and was dancing barefoot, which I regretted later in the night when my toes were trod on, but the cold tile floor felt great at the time! We had a small circle of four people, with those small circles repeated all around the room in a huge circle. There were about 70-80 people dancing at any one time, and another 30 or so watching. We twirled, changed direction, made a star pattern by grasping wrists, do-si-doed, and clapped. Each couple moved on to the next place and found new partners, working all the way around the room by the end of the dance. Important piece of information: The dances last about 15 or 20 minutes each, and you’re moving fast the whole time! Needless to say, by the time you’re halfway around the room, those wrists you’re grabbing are pretty slick, and the circles are not holding together very tightly. Furthermore, at one point my partner (see how I didn’t embarrass my husband there?) do-si-doed without looking and slammed right into my back, knocking the wind out of me. Naturally, I was very gracious about this and did not mention it more than five times after the dance.

At the end of the first dance, we were gasping for air, and one of the young women said, “It’s a great cardio workout, isn’t it?” It is, indeed. We made straight for the ice water, and watched through the second dance. That’s when I took these pictures. (Oh, did you think there would be pictures of me? How could I take pictures of myself dancing?) It is really fun to watch, but by the end of the second song, we were ready to try again. When the music ended, it was as if there had been an emergency evacuation! Everyone hit the church foyer for drinks and cookies, but drifted back in a few minutes later. We stood up in line and listened to instructions, and I knew we were in trouble when I kept landing in the wrong place every time we practiced a move. Our neighbor said, “Oh, you’ll get it once we start.” We didn’t. We were dancing with a girl / girl couple, so I never knew if I was opposite a gentleman, as I was supposed to be, or a lady, which means that I was wrong. By the time we sorted that out, it was time to move on to the next move, and eventually we turned around to join the next couple, and they weren’t there. We were not alone in our confusion, since there was a lot of good-natured shouting going on, but I think most people were not quite as lost as I was. We gave up, laughing.

My conclusion? It was a blast. It was so fun to have a room full of people twirling, shrieking, and laughing, and everyone was really forgiving of those who were struggling and counting off steps. We had a great time, and if I could practice more, I would love to do this more often. I’m not sure that other people would like for me to dance more often, but maybe I’d improve. If I could choose one regular workout, this would be it. “Regular” being the operative word here, since the next scheduled dance at our church is in January.


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The Second Life of Abigail Walker

We are privileged to have several major authors living in the Triangle area, one being the award-winning children’s author Frances O’Roark Dowell. Her very first novel, Dovey Coe, won the Edgar Award, and she has written many books since then, some set in Raleigh and the surrounding area. Chicken Boy is one of my favorites. Ms. Dowell is a warm and sympathetic person, and she has been very generous with her time for the children in Wake County.

Her newest novel, The Second Life of Abigail Walker, is getting some Newbery buzz. Lest you be deceived, it is not about zombies or vampires. Abby doesn’t die and come back to life, rather she begins to see her life more clearly and decides that she can take control of it for herself, that she does not have to accept what other people say about her or what they want her to do.

Abby’s best friend moved away just before sixth grade, which is already a very complicated time in a girl’s life. Kristen, the middle-school Queen Bee and resident mean girl, has decided to adopt Abby and let her sit at her lunch table, surrounded by all of the popular girls whom Abby has privately started calling “the medium girls.” They are of medium weight and medium intelligence, and their parents live in medium-sized houses and make medium amounts of money. Abby would like to be medium, just so that she could blend in, but the price to pay to sit at the popular table is to endure ceaseless teasing about her weight. Abby is not really fat; she weighs 105 pounds. The medium girls, though, all weigh around 90 pounds, and their conversation veers between feigned concern for Abby’s health and laughing scorn.

At home, things are no better. Abby’s parents have put her on a diet. Abby’s mother is a cheerful worrier; I think the term today is “helicopter mom.” She wants Abby to make new friends and have a picture-perfect life, and part of that project is to watch every morsel that goes into Abby’s mouth. Abby has two brothers, and Mom makes cookies for them when they come home from school, but Abby can’t have any. On pizza night, her brothers get pepperoni pizza, but Abby can only have one slice of cheese pizza. Not surprisingly, Abby has started to hide candy bars in the pockets of the clothes in her closet. Her father is much, much worse, as he shows thinly-veiled disgust for his daughter. In one heartbreaking scene, Abby is browsing the family pictures on her father’s office wall, and she realizes that he has not hung any pictures of her since she was a baby.

The lot across the street from Abby’s house has been vacant for a long time and has been allowed to grow wild. As Abby is a reader and a talented artist, she has begun taking a lawn chair and cooler over there to draw and to read about birds and wildlife. One day, she is bitten—gently!—by a fox, and after that her life begins to change. Is the fox magical? I’ll let you decide, but every once in a while, the fox narrates a chapter. She has been all over the world and seems to transcend time, and she cares for Abby. She sees the mean girls looking for Abby, and she calls them “the raccoon girls,” since raccoons sum up everything despicable in her world. Abby thinks that the fox is speaking to her and helping her to think differently. <Spoiler Alert> Before long, Abby starts eating her lunch with two nice Indian boys, finds out that the computer-geek girl is very smart and interesting, and meets a homeschooled boy, Anders, and his family. All of these characters work together to help Anders’ dad, who is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Abby discovers strengths in herself that she never knew she possessed.

I read this book in one sitting on Saturday morning, which is less impressive when you consider how talented I am at sitting. I found Abby to be an extremely likable character, probably because she was a chubby child, so I could relate. However, I was never teased by kids at school, and my parents were always wonderful. I hated Abby’s parents, especially her father, and I must say that Ms. Dowell did an excellent job in building that emotion in the reader. It was so well done, since as a child, you could just feel Abby’s helplessness as she tried to be happy with herself in spite of, rather than because of, her parents. On the other hand, as a parent, I understand how much you want to save your children from any sadness or trial in life, and you just can’t see that you are making the problem worse. I also applaud Ms. Dowell for bringing resolution through having Abby look outside of herself to help and appreciate other people, rather than making this yet another novel in which the character finally loses weight and— poof!— all of her problems are solved and she lives happily ever after. The weaving in of the fox as a wise character who can see more of the picture than anyone else was interesting. The reader is comforted to know that the fox sees Abby the way we do, and that although we are helpless, perhaps the fox can show Abby the truth.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone 10 and up, especially girls—and their parents.

Disclaimer: All of the opinions expressed are my own and are not those of my employer or anyone else. I read a library copy of the book.

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Look! I’ve Been Baking!

If you read my post about cookbooks, I told you that I’d report back to you with results from my experiments with the new book, The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking, by Peter Reinhart and Denene Wallace.

Well, here are some pictures of my latest trials. The first recipe I tried, as I wrote in my last post, was the Pecan ImageSandies, which were fabulous. I wish I had a picture for you, but maybe later! Next, I made the Cheesy Italian Herb Bread. It looks good, and the flavor is very nice. It has red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, thyme, and more, but the texture put me off. I think it’s the xanthan gum, which was probably added to give the nut flour base a stretchy feel more like a yeast bread, but it seems slimy and oily to me. Next time, I think I’ll try it without xanthan gum, and I hope it will have a quick bread texture, because the flavor is warm and hearty.

This morning, I made the Cranberry Scones. Perfect! They are sweet and soft, with just the right amount of munchiness that scones should have. We had them with a pot of our Saturday “good coffee.” I had to force myself not to pick up yet another one.Image

The biggest drawback of the cookbook so far is the cost of the ingredients. Nuts are not cheap! I was able to find almost everything—even the xanthan gum and the flaxseed meal—at Wal-Mart. I only had to buy the hazelnuts at Whole Food$. I think I could actually get a better price on the almonds in the Whole Foods bulk food bins.

Next week: Chocolate Cake! I’m waiting for the blade coffee grinder to arrive from Amazon first, so that I can get the hazelnuts ground to a really fine flour. The food processor only gives me a fine meal, which is still great for cookies and scones.

Maybe I will also start walking every day. The sacrifices I make for the sake of research!


Filed under Diabetes, Food

So Many Special Diets!

Since I am a diabetic who is trying (successfully, so far) to remain unmedicated, I do a lot of reading and keep a sharp eye out for new low-carb recipes. If you were cynical, you could call it a Quest for Bread. You might call it trying to have my cake and eat it, too. If you were truly cruel, you might ask me if I’ve tried exercising, because you’d heard that exercise was important for diabetics, too. But we’re not going to go there today.

Working in library administration, I get to see all the new books that come in before they even get to the libraries. It’s a huge perk. I am happy to see a lot of books coming out lately for people like me who are looking for alternatives to the average American diet, which is fairly carbtastic. There are many more low-carbohydrate resources out there than there were when Dr. Atkins was alive, and now there is a movement called the Paleo Diet that has opened up new avenues for low-carbers. At the same time, many Americans are discovering that the gluten in the massive amounts of wheat that they eat each day is making them sick. The cookbook writers have been busy cornering the gluten-free market as well, and some of these recipes can work for a low-carb diet, too. Since I’ve been working through what’s available for a couple of decades, I will try to sort through the different theories and present the good, the bad, and the crazy from all these plans, including one brand-new cookbook that was a surprise winner this week.

The first low-carbohydrate cookbook I purchased was Fran McCullough’s Low-Carb Cookbook, published in 1997. Ms. McCullough was a chef who wanted to bring some better food to the Atkins scene that was then filled with protein isolate and other chemical-sounding ingredients. It was good, although sometimes difficult and limited. These were pre-Splenda days, after all. The next one became a daily companion for a long time: Dana Carpender’s 500 Low-Carb Recipes. Although Ms. Carpender does use some Frankenfood ingredients, not all of the recipes do, and this hefty cookbook contains lots of family-friendly recipes from appetizers to desserts. Many of my most basic “substitution” recipes come from this cookbook, including ways to use cauliflower instead of rice, potatoes (“fauxtatoes”), and grits. These are really delicious recipes that I’ve used with company many times, and no one has been the wiser: pumpkin pie, shrimp and “grits,” and many more. Dana Carpender published several other cookbooks after that, and I own three more of them. My next favorite chef, though, was George Stella, who had a low-carb cooking show on the Food Network for a while. His two cookbooks, Livin’ Low-Carb and Eating Stella Style have great recipes, although the books themselves fell to pieces pretty quickly. The first one, Livin’ Low-Carb, relied too much on soy flour for baking, and I’m still skittish about the inconclusive research on whether soy disturbs the thyroid or contributes to breast cancer. I tend to go lightly on soy, although I have an awesome chocolate mousse recipe that uses soft tofu. No, really. It’s delicious. Anyhow, George Stella’s New York Style Cheesecake is the definition of perfect cheesecake. Other winners include cauliflower “mac” and cheese, baked (black soy) beans, and Anaheim Shrimp Scampi, which features asiago cheese and avocado.

After weeding through the low-carb cookbooks, trying to avoid the artificial ingredients and eat more real food, I read about the Paleo Diet. The Paleo Diet is usually low-carb, because the point of this diet is to eat the way our ancestors did. No, that does not mean that if your ancestors were Scottish, you should live on haggis. Go further back. The Paleo people believe that the human body was not created did not evolve to eat grains, because hunter-gatherers did not stay in one place long enough to plant, reap, thresh, etc. They believe that we should eat only what would have been available to us in prehistoric times. Considering the way we’ve bred wheat to contain ever more endosperm—and therefore carbohydrates and gluten—I think I can agree with them to a point. That being said, there seem to be some convenient inconsistencies here and there. For example, they seem to use a lot of coconut products. Everything but the squeal, as it were. They use coconut meat in all forms, coconut oil, coconut milk, and coconut butter. When I think of coconut, I think of islands, but I looked it up, and you might see coconuts in some parts of the middle east that we might generously call Mesopotamia and northern Africa, where humans seem to have first shown up, no matter the origin story. On the other hand, I can’t imagine my ancestors in France, Ireland, and Scotland eating coconuts. They do allow maple syrup, though, which is surely not Mediterranean. Naturally, I substitute Splenda for all sweeteners, which would make a Paleo advocate shudder. There is some very sound science behind the Paleo movement, as our culture has become ridiculously addicted to foods made from grains, and the recipes can be used by celiac disease patients, diabetics (with caution on sweeteners and dried fruits, both of which are minimal in the recipes), and anyone interested in good health. Obviously, all of the recipes contain whole foods, since Twinkies were not available in the Paleolithic Era. The absence of dairy makes me sad, though, and I must confess to throwing some cheese into a couple of dishes. The movement started with scientific books and then branched out to cookbooks. I own the cookbook Paleo Comfort Foods, by Julie Sullivan Mayfield, and have made several good dishes from it, but if I were going to be serious about the Paleo diet and could only own one book, it would probably be the new Practical Paleo, by Diane Sanfilippo, BS, NC. This is an all-in-one guide to the theory, followed by recipes for the last two-thirds of the book. Ms. Sanfilippo goes through symptoms of grain intolerance, reasons to eat Paleo, how to shop Paleo and stock a Paleo pantry, and a great deal more wonderful information, presented in almost bullet-point fashion. There are two-page spreads of lists of food, tear-out guides to this and that, diagrams of intestines, and everything else one would desire. The recipes are well done, with pictures for each dish. The only drawback is the size: this huge book will break your arm if you’re not careful, so be sure to have a solid surface available.

After William Davis’ surprise hit, Wheat Belly, everyone discovered that they were gluten-intolerant.  (“Surprise” because it reads like a textbook. Trust me. I love his message, but I couldn’t get through the book. However, this is what you hand to your scientific friends who scoff at your low-carb diet. Impeccable research.) This coordinates beautifully, of course, with the Paleo Diet movement, too, so the resources are getting plentiful for finely-tailored low-carb diets. Cookbooks for gluten-free recipes are enjoying their day in the sun at the moment, and many of them are excellent. The caution for diabetics is that gluten-free does not necessarily mean low-carb, since the next place to go is to other grains, particularly rice, but also quinoa, amaranth, and others. These grains have just as many or more carbohydrates as wheat, so you must be cautious. Happily, there have been some inroads into nut flours, since they are healthful and natural, besides being tastier than rice. Yes, I know, more fat and calories, but these will be treats, so don’t eat too much. Just this week, Peter Reinhart and Denene Wallace released the new cookbook, The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking. I pulled it off the “new books” carts and leafed through it, expecting rice flour, but no, it only uses nut flours. It seems that Mr. Reinhart is a baker of some renown (who knew?) who has lots of regular baking cookbooks out. However, his wife was recently diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease (Let’s just pause here to consider the heartbreak of being diagnosed with Celiac’s when your husband is a baker.), and he wanted to try low-carb eating, so he developed recipes that take all of these things into account. He leaves it to you to use Splenda or stevia as your sweetener, since you can keep it completely natural with stevia. I don’t care for the taste, so I’m going with Splenda. I brought the book home, made the Pecan Sandies, and immediately bought the book on Amazon. Seriously, I almost never buy books anymore, since I can get almost anything I want at the library, but this book is great. No protein isolate. Real ingredients in the hands of a master baker. I’ve been looking for this book for a long time. More results to come!

So, that’s my roundup of old and new low-carbish resources. I hope it’s helpful to those of you with similar needs. Of course, if you are thin and healthy and have no digestive issues, have a cookie. Just not in front of me.


Filed under Book Reviews, Diabetes, Food

Look Who Came to See Me!

I like frogs. I do. Especially the little green peepers that we hear all summer down by the creek. You know it’s finally summer the first time you come home after dark to find one of these green guys suctioned onto your house just under the porch light, peering longingly at the moths fluttering around.

However, at least one of our frogs wants to live with us inside. (We don’t know if it’s the same frog or many frogs, since they never introduce themselves.) During my first interior experience with a tree frog, I was on the phone with my mom around dusk. Suddenly, on the wall across the room, I saw a long leg pop out from behind the chair—a long leg with spatulate toes, clinging to the wall. I’m sure I screeched something incoherent into the phone, because my mother yelled, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” about the same time that a second leg showed up a few inches below the other. By the time the entire body was showing, I was screaming into the garage for David to come get “a critter!” I had no idea what it was until he picked it up.

About a week later, I was the first one downstairs in the morning, so I flipped on the light and walked over to the ironing board in front of the living room windows. We often see frogs clinging to these windows, so I was not surprised to see a little amphibian right in the middle. After I’d turned on a few more lights, though, I noticed that he was greener than the usual pale, buff-colored abdomen that we normally see. I was looking at his back! “David!” Again my patient husband picked him up and put him outside. We really don’t leave our doors open or have holes in our screens. As a matter of fact, we close our windows downstairs at night, so I can’t imagine how they’re getting in!

Now we have one hanging out in the watering can. I have a 1 ½ gallon, red plastic watering can that I keep on the back porch. I bring it in and put it in the kitchen sink to fill. Last week, I started the water and noticed a frog jump up the inside of the can, looking panicked. He somehow got himself into the narrowest part of the spout, and I couldn’t figure out how to get him out without drowning him. David took it outside and removed the sprinkler spout at the end. The frog came shooting out, sailed over the porch railing, and landed in the grass below. I was sure he was dead, but David pointed him out, still hopping along the ground.

This weekend, I checked the can carefully before bringing it inside. All clear. I put the can in the sink and started the water, then walked into the laundry room to put clothes in the dryer. By the time I came back into the kitchen, the water was overflowing into the sink, and perched on top of the can’s handle—yep, our little green guy. Worse: David wasn’t home. I got the water off and spent a few minutes staring at the frog, working up my courage. The frog had his neck turned so that he could keep an eye on me, too. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I couldn’t pick him up. They just jump so far so fast! I yelled up the stairs to my son, “How good are you at catching frogs?” He answered, “Not very.” He’s never been a nature boy, but he did come downstairs and somehow decided that the best course of action would be to throw a dishtowel over him. First dishtowel: missed by a mile. Second dish towel: got him! But when he reached over to cup the dishtowel around where the frog was, he noticed that he was now sitting on a red cup beside the sink. He slowly picked up the cup and started toward the porch while I held the back door open. Miraculously, the frog stayed still for this entire trip, but as soon as we hit the porch, he leapt toward freedom and landed in the grass again. I don’t know how he survives every time!

Surprisingly, I still like frogs, but they’re easier to love at a distance. We’re going to have to name this one soon, and if he keeps getting inside, we’re going to start charging him rent.


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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A NovelClay Jannon, like so many others these days, has lost his job. He’s a web designer in San Francisco, and after looking around for a while, he’s ready to take the midnight shift in a strange little bookshop. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is shaped like a shoebox placed on its side, tall and narrow, so ladder-climbing skills are necessary. Very few customers shop in the middle of the night, but those who do come in have borrowing cards, so Clay rarely makes a sale. Clay has never heard of these authors or titles, and Mr. Penumbra has told him never to look inside the books.

At home, Clay has a roommate who works for Industrial Light and Magic and is taking over the apartment with perfect models of cities. One of his gaming friends from middle school has become incredibly wealthy by building a special effects company based entirely on simulations of breasts—but he’s ready to branch out. Clay is smitten with a girl genius who works for Google in Palo Alto. In other words, if you’re a geek, this is your book.

This small band of creative nerds, along with the elderly, sprightly Mr. Penumbra, enters into a quest to unravel the secrets contained in the shadowy world of the bookstore. Secret codes and ancient cults meet social networking and brilliant hackers.

Robin Sloan writes in a lighthearted tone with plenty of wry, off-beat humor. Clay is a very appealing character, and we identify with this smart, regular guy surrounded by amazingly talented friends. He may not be able to access 10,000 computers at once, but he knows someone who can. He may not have lots of money to fund sudden trips to New York, but he knows someone who does. He doesn’t use his friends, though; he respects them, and he’s a pretty resourceful guy all around.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is also a book-lover’s book. Lots of names are dropped and issues discussed: print books versus ebooks, Google digitizing the world, independent bookstores, gaming geeks who love fantasy series, and so on. Penumbra also fits into the puzzle-solving mystery subgenre, which has exploded since the phenomenon called The Da Vinci Code. I am not usually a fan of this subgenre, but I did like Mr. Penumbra very much. I enjoy well-chosen ensemble casts, for one thing, and the writing style was very appealing. Occasionally, it was confusing when someone seemed to answer Clay’s thoughts, but that was my only quibble with style. I am a little bit tech-savvy, so I liked the gee-whizzy parts, but I am not knowledgeable enough to know how much is true and how much is science fiction. I’ve handed the book to my son so that he can enlighten me. He will love it; geeky, funny, and clever are big appeal factors for him. If they are for you, too, let me recommend this new book, due out October 2nd. Our publisher rep. tells me that it will have a glow-in-the-dark cover!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely my own and not those of my employer. I read an advance reader copy supplied to the library by the publisher.


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A Life Crowded with Incident

As Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell said disapprovingly, I have recently had “a life crowded with incident,” which is why I have not been posting lately. What with watching political conventions, falling ill, and starting back to church home groups, there has simply not been time to write! I must remedy that.

My lovely, planned four-day weekend over the Labor Day holiday was crippled by a sudden fever. I’d had a vague headache for a couple of days, woke up on Labor Day with a sick stomach, and then the fever came on a few hours later. Of course, as an amateur epidemiologist I was immediately convinced that I had West Nile Virus, and went to Google for confirmation of symptoms. It could fit, but I think I was influenced toward extra drama because I had just finished a book about an epidemic (see my latest book review) and because I’d read a news story about a man in a neighboring town who had died of West Nile Virus last week. It’s possible, although I haven’t hiked through a swamp lately. A mosquito could have chomped on me between the house and the car. Anyhow, I’m much better now.

Before and after my little spell, I stayed up late every night watching both the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions. I am a junkie. It has taken its toll, as right now I could sleep for 24 hours straight. Who in the world thought it was a good idea to put the major speeches on at 10:30 at night? As my sister said, don’t they know that Republicans are in bed by 9:00? My husband pointed out that for the people on the west coast, it would be 7:30. I pointed out that I live on the east coast, so I don’t care.

Why, you ask, would I torture myself for six whole nights of unending blather and hot air? It is my civic duty, I tell myself, to be fully informed and to receive information from the source, not recycled through a TV news commentator. I like to pretend that everyone in America does this, and that no one would ever make a critical decision because of a joke they heard on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show.

In case you were unavoidably prevented from exercising your civic duties, I have a quick summary of the major points that you need to know before you vote:

  1. All elected officials of both parties firmly believe that we, the “average Americans,” are awesome.
  2. All elected officials of both parties were born into abject poverty, and yet their parents/grandparents made great sacrifices so that they could speak on this stage today. They all believe that their forebears were also awesome.
  3. All elected officials of both parties are totally in favor of Mom and apple pie—although the Democrats would now prefer low-fat apple pie, followed by exercise. They both earnestly desire for you to know, however, that the opposing party is trying to put apple pickers out of work and has nefarious plans for Mom.

There you go. Now you can make an informed choice.

Church is always part of our schedule, too. Our church is a pretty large church, at least for us. David and I have been in so many church plants that more than 100 people feels like a megachurch. Sovereign Grace has about 500 people on a Sunday morning, and since it’s tough to be all Acts Chapter Two with that big a crowd, everyone belongs to a small group that meets in someone’s home twice a month. We take August off, though, so that everyone (particularly the hosts) can take a breather. Since I am introverted enough to want to slip into a cocoon every night when I get home from work, I’ll admit that there are times that I’d rather stay home than go to home group. Once I’m there, though, it’s warm and caring, and I really found myself missing my home groupers in August! We started back this past Wednesday, and it was so good to see them. This is church. When someone says, “How are you?” they’re not looking for “Fine.” They really want to know. Everyone is completely honest about what’s happening in their lives and in their souls. We try to help one another, and we pray for each other constantly. I know all kinds of things about their kids, their parents, and all of their ailments, and they know the same about me. There is never a hint of gossip, but there is plenty of care. I love going to church on Sunday to sing with a room full of really loud and joyful people (my husband is the loudest) and to listen to a serious and meaty sermon (with laptops and iPads filling with notes all over the room), but Wednesday night home group is like getting together with family. It’s good to be back.

So that’s what’s up with me. I’ve also been reading like mad, happily zipping through Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Prince and following up with Invincible Microbe. I’m sure there was something else in there, too. Now I’m reading an adult novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is due out in October and is so good that I will certainly write a review soon. Be sure to put it on your “to-read” list!

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Invincible Microbe

I love a good plague story. It’s a macabre part of my personality, I suppose. I was struggling through Connie Willis’ wonderful Doomsday Book, hoping to connect to this novel that came to me highly recommended, and as soon as there was a hint of bubonic plague, I was hooked. I thought the movie Contagion was great. A few years ago, I loved Jim Murphy’s award-winning An American Plague, a brilliant expose of the yellow fever epidemic, and so I looked forward to his new book, co-authored with his wife, Alison Blank, about yet another ailment.

Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure, unlike the stories of bubonic plague or yellow fever, is an ongoing story. Until I read this book, I did not realize that tuberculosis is still such a danger all over the world, including the United States. I remember when my son’s Tine test showed positive when he was little, and the doctor said, “Don’t worry. We have antibiotics these days.” Thank goodness that it turned out that Michael was allergic to the Tine test and showed negative for the bubble-under-the-skin test, because we do not, as a matter of fact, have effective antibiotics for every case of tuberculosis even today.

Murphy starts with the history of tuberculosis, which is found in ancient skeletons. The most interesting part of the history, for a nineteenth-century novel enthusiast like me, is discussing the strange attitude that “consumption” was romantic and spiritual. Murphy gives a list of many poets and artists who had consumption, and how the emaciated, thin-skinned look of tuberculosis patients became fashionable. Healthy women even drank lemon juice and vinegar or ate sand in order to attain that coveted pallor. It reminded me of Calvin Klein’s ad campaign a decade or more ago that promoted the similar look of “heroin chic.” I guess even antibiotics can’t cure that kind of insanity.

I am always amazed and frustrated when I read about how long it took for germ theory to be accepted by the medical community. Imagine how many patients died from being bled, when they would have recovered perfectly if the doctor had left them alone! It makes me wonder what we don’t know today that will seem so obvious in the future. Dr. David Agus, oncologist and author of The End of Illness, has expressed his frustration that germ theory is being used in the research and treatment of cancer, although it does not fit. So we still have a long way to go.

The photographs of the huge sanatoriums filled with patients— and then years later empty and decaying— showed how much money was invested in the treatment of tuberculosis patients. No matter how large they were, there was never enough room for everyone. The regimens of treatment in sanatoriums ranged from common-sense to bizarre, but consumption patients and their families were willing to try anything.

The narrative about the tiny, incremental victories toward the cure of this epidemic is often interrupted by setbacks as the bacteria strengthen and resurface, either in the same patient or on another continent. Our hope is that some young person reading this book will be inspired to continue the fight toward eradicating tuberculosis once and for all.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer or anyone else. I read a library copy of the book.

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