Monday, October 26, 2009

Everyone Loves A Cake Wreck

Kevin Coolidge

A big, cold glass of milk and a slice of my Grandma’s lemon Bundt cake – nothing says sweet memories like quality baked goods, but not all cakes turn out quite so well. Some cakes are ugly, silly, or unintentionally funny. Now you can have your cake and laugh at it too with Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong by Jen Yates, creator of CakeWrecks.com.

So what is it about a messed-up cake that people find so appealing? I think it’s because everyone has a cake story to tell. Maybe it’s that Little Pony cake that your mom made, but the dog ate, or it’s that day-glow, frosted dragon cake that gave you Technicolor poo for three days. These little slices of flawed confections make us feel more connected to each other, and remind us not to take life too seriously.

So how does the author define a “cake wreck”? Here is Jen’s working definition: “A cake wreck is any professionally-made cake that is unintentionally sad, silly, creepy, inappropriate—you name it. A wreck is not necessarily a poorly made cake; it’s simply one I find funny, for any number of reasons.”

That’s right: it’s Jen’s call, and if you don’t like it, that’s how the cookie crumbles. But some wrecks are a matter of opinion, and not always the fault of the decorator. Though what occasion would call for naked babies with Mohawks riding carrots is beyond even my wild imagination. The baker may have done a sweet sculpture, but it can still be a wreck. So, grab a fork, turn the page and let’s sample.

Cake Wrecks is divided into several slices. There are the literal LOLs (that’s laughing out loud in text talk). Some wrecks make you wonder what exactly the customer ordered. Not these. There’s the famous email forward photo of “Best Wishes Suzanne Under Neat that We will Miss You”. Another favorite is the all too literal “What do you want on your cake?” and the answer, boldly spelled on said cake -- “NOTHING.” If I got anything from this book, other than a belly full of laughter, it’s never to phone in an order and always “neatly” write down your desired inscription.

Jen Yates gives further cake lessons: now I see that picking up the cake only thirty minutes before the event is never a good idea, and that brown icing has a dramatically good chance of looking like fecal matter. As Yates points out, maybe it’s the texture, maybe it’s that fancy, swirly little twist that bakers use, but for me, it does make that low carb diet more appealing than ever. I think I’ll skip desert.

We’ve all made mistakes, turned right when it should have been left, wore stripes with plaid, and asked a cake decorator to write the word “birthday” on a cake, with those pesky numbers: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th—they all have different endings. Who can keep track of them all? It’s easier to just slap a “th” on them all.

There are also photos of wedding wrecks that fresh flowers can’t fix, holiday horrors of demented Santas, and the beyond bizarre, those creations that frighten, disturb, or just make you go “huh?” A veiled pony as a birthday cake, really? A cake wreck can remind us that life is still sweet, even if your butterfly cake looks more like an alien autopsy. After all, nothing is ever a total loss if it can make you smile. It’s the icing on the cake. So have a Hafpfy birfay! Got ‘ny milk???

Home made? Or bakery bought? Drop me an email at frommyshelf@epix.net. Miss a past column? Have your cake and eat it too at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com. Hobo knows how sweet it is, that’s why he wrote his memoir “Hobo Finds a Home” a children’s book about a cat who found a home. Now available wherever quality baked goods are sold.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Tasty Memoir




I realize that it’s no longer en vogue to be a Francophile; these days, France is more likely to be the punchline for a joke about military history or about culture snobs than it is to be the focus of an article singing her praises. I, however, will always have a big mushy spot in my heart for the French language, as well as for the food, film, art, poetry, travel…. Okay, I know; you get the point. After the intensity of The Laramie Project, I needed something sweet and light to read. Quelle bonne chance for me, I picked up My Life in France. Published in 2006, this lovely memoir was written near the end of Julia’s life, with the help of her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme (husband Paul’s twin brother was Alex’s grandfather).

Julia Child’s memoir is different from most contemporary memoirs in several ways. First of all, unlike many books published by celebrity personalities, this memoir is truly the reflecting-back-on a long, interesting and celebrated life, in sharp contrast to the narcissistic, voyeuristic “memoirs” of people in their thirties or forties which Hollywood pushes to the bestseller list now. To be honest, I could care less about Jon & Kate or Tori Spelling, and if I really need to know about their lives thus far, magazine articles in People or Entertainment Weekly usually suffice.

That criticism of Hollywood being noted, it is important to recognize it was television that brought Julia Child to America’s attention – first, with the introduction of her cooking show, “The French Chef”, in 1963; and then again, with the film, Julie & Julia, just this past August, 2009. As much as I am often leery of the way a film adaptation may ruin a great book, I’m also grateful to have wonderful books brought to national attention again by the promotion of a film version. Such is the case with Julia Child. I never saw Child on TV; my family, as far as I can remember, did not own a copy of any of her cookbooks, although my dad does have an old copy of Larousse Gastronomique floating around the house, which he occasionally gets down and looks through longingly. The re-introduction of Julia Child to my generation, especially through all the hoopla for this film, was a gift to me, since it encouraged me to pick up a memoir I might otherwise have ignored.

Another tremendous difference between Child’s memoir and so many others which regularly populate bestseller lists and book club choices is Child’s upbeat perspective. Although I really appreciate memoir, a basic fact of the genre – of solid storytelling in general – is that conflict and strife make for interesting reading. Remember that plot structure diagram from English class? Sure, that diagram was mostly to teach us about fiction, but fiction imitates life, and life is certainly full of difficulties. Memoirs don’t need to invent problems for their characters; the problems are part of these people’s true stories.

What continued to strike me as I read My Life in France is the uplifting tone: it’s not as if she and Paul didn’t have problems or stress or sadness, because they did. During their early time in France, especially, they had very little money (a middle-level diplomatic position in France in the late 1940s did NOT pay much). Their apartment had no hot water in the kitchen, no central heating, and bad wiring. Paul Child’s job was full of stressors, as he tried to organize, staff and work out of an office that had few resources, in a France trying to recover from the ravages of World War II. Nevertheless, Julia and Paul were happy, believing that “marriage and advancing age agreed” with them, affirming that they were “giddy about Paris.” Paul Child continued to credit his wife for “his new outlook on life. ‘I am less sour now than I used to be,’ he admitted. ‘It’s because of you, Julie.’” Even in her nineties, as she recalled her life to Alex Prud’homme, it is obvious that the phrase joie de vivre was invented to describe Julia Child. It is marvelous to read the thoughts of someone who loved life so much, when many memoirs are either heartbreaking or insipid.

In the land of the 5-minute lunch instead of the five-course dinner, in the time of the Blackberry instead of blackberry wine sauce, can we still enjoy “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”? Well, I haven’t had had a used copy at the bookstore, of either volume, for months, and ordering a used copy online costs just as much as a new one – if not a great deal more, especially if you want an older edition. I guess I know what to get my dad for Christmas, though; Julia Child embarked on her cookbook in order to bring French food to those who moon over Larousse Gastronomique. “Bon app├ętit”, America.

Pommes frites or French fries? Hobo doesn’t eat frogs, but he does appreciate his gourmet food as much as the next fat cat. He’ll have you know his book has traveled to France at least twice now! He’s not a culture snob, though; he’s just a wandering Hobo who found a home. Follow Hobo’s home and kitchen tips at his weekly blog at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com or share yours with him at frommyshelf@epix.net.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How Low Can You Go?






How Low Can You Go?
By Sam Droke-Dickinson, of Aaron’s Books, in Lititz, PA
Modified with permission by Kasey Cox, of From My Shelf, in Wellsboro


By now, you've probably heard of the book price war that is happening online... it's now a three-way battle to the bottom, with Target joining the fray today.

The truth is, the price war is really over a very small number of hardback books. These mega-conglomorates are hoping you'll visit their site for a discounted hardback novel & stay to buy a bunch of Chinese-made junk. (No offense to the Chinese.) They aren't including the trade paperbacks that our book clubs love, the Golden Books we all remember, the histories, mysteries, or spiritual living books that we stock just for you.

So why shop with us, knowing you can get a few books for so much less somewhere else (less than we can even buy the book wholesale from the publisher)?

Here's my top 10 of why NOT to fall for the "go low" trick ....

1) When you buy from us, we've actually read many of the books on our shelves, and for the ones we really like, you've seen them on our blog or reviewed in the Wellsboro Gazette.

2) We know that JD Robb is really Nora Roberts, who herself owns a B&B and indie bookstore.

3) We can pronounce Jodi Picoult's name.

4) If you want something to go along with your ultra cheap bestseller, we can make a recommendation suited to you, and not what some computer "bot" thinks you may like based on your previous keyword search.

5) You don't have to walk (physically or virturtally) through the tire and diaper sections to see our books.

6) You can actually pick up the book, and read a few pages to test it out before buying. And you can browse books in all the other sections that interest you.

7) Will they greet your children by name and remember they like Geronimo Stilton or have read all the Junie B's? We will!

8) We don't require you to search by author or title... you can browse any section and find that unexpected book that makes you smile, cry, or laugh out loud.

9) Our customer service is easy to reach... you just call out "Kasey" or "Kevin" from any section of the store and we're there to help you.

10) When you "buy local", your money stays local. How does your community benefit when you buy from Amazon? How much support do they provide your local library? Do they buy car insurance from a local firm? Do they order their materials from a local printer? Do they offer meeting space for local groups or a train table for your kids in the play room? NOPE, NADA, NOTHING... not one dime or one second of time goes back to the community when you shop the mega-marts online!

So yes, you can save $10 today playing the "how low can you go" game, but did you really save enough to balance out all that your local independent bookstore does for your town/city/county? It comes down to choices, and sometimes making the choice to spend a few more dollars just feels right! And if you do buy the discount book, don't buy anything else. They are doing this to get you to fill your cart; don't fall for the trap. Get a bag of books you really want at your indie bookstore.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Meet Meg

Kevin Coolidge

There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.—Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael. Call me bored. Moby Dick may be considered one of the greatest novels in the English language, but do you know anyone who has actually read it? Don’t lie. Maybe you got as far as rendering blubber, maybe you actually got through the dense, muscular prose, but did you get anything out of it? It’s definitely a book that takes a solid education to appreciate all the symbolism, imagery and metaphor, and even then you’ll probably miss something. If you’re just eager for the story, read the first page and the last hundred and you’ll get a fine tale.

Would Melville even be able to find a publisher today? "Hmm, it's a good manuscript, better in many of its parts than as an integrated work. Lose the nautical terms, streamline the story, ramp up the violence and spin off those asides on whaling into a nonfiction work on the whaleship Essex – after all, the book by Owen Chase is out of print. Who's going to know?" While Herman was working on the rewrite, the editor would have published Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten.

Meg stands for Carcharodon megalodon, a giant shark that lived during prehistoric times. It was the apex predator of its time and at an estimated sixty feet and thirty tons, is the largest carnivorous fish ever known to exist. The plot is straight up pulp-fiction action, ready for the B-movie rights. Jonas Taylor is a deep sea diver working for the United States Navy on a top-secret dive seven miles down into the Mariana Trench. He comes face-to-snout with the most fearsome predator that everyone else believes to be extinct.

Rushing topside, he barely escapes with his life, while two others in the deep sea submersible aren't so lucky. Diagnosed with "aberrations of the deep" Jonas is discharged from the navy, and is determined to prove to the world that the goliath predator exists. He becomes a paleontologist and tries to prove that the megalodon is real, but is still considered a crackpot. When an opportunity to return to the trench presents itself, he takes it. But man's presence in this unexplored domain releases the demon fish from its purgatory, and now Jonas is the only one who can stop it…

Meg is no Moby Dick, but it is an adrenaline-pumping thriller that hooked me from the start with its nonstop action and graphic cover, a Tyrannosaurus Rex being torn apart. Can you scream “Jurassic Shark?” The book also grabs the attentions of students who are often reluctant to read.

The book and its sequels have become the cornerstone of the Adopt-An-Author program, a non-profit organization that encourages teens to read. Young children receive an abundance of encouragement to read, but once a student reaches high school, reading is often replaced by television, video games and a peer group that no longer thinks reading is “cool.”

The program offers fast-paced thrillers with scientific facts and research, and interaction with best-selling authors. Teachers interested can register online through www.AdoptAnAuthor.com. Registration is free. The website offers links to all the participating author's works, free curriculum materials, and interactive websites. Upon registering, each teacher will receive a free classroom poster and additional materials about the program. Students who are excited about reading, get excited about learning, and might just read a classic on their own. From hell's heart, I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee. “Hmmm, did Melville write a sequel???”

A great, white whale? A whale of a great white? Or do you choose to stay close to shore? Email me at frommyshelf@epix.net. Miss a past column? You can go once more into the breach at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com. Can’t get enough Hobo the Cat? Be sure to look for Hobo’s new calendar, now in glossy format. All Hobo, all the time, with full color photos by…who cares? It’s Hobo!!!