Tag: CAKEWALK


While Cleaning My Study

June 10th, 2010 — 7:36am

With a few days’ lull in events for Cakewalk, I’ve been cleaning my house. I mean seriously cleaning: not just moving the piles around to vacuum under them, but actually going through the piles and finding field trip permission slips that should have been turned in three years ago, and a Real Simple magazine from months back that promises “MORE TIME FOR YOU: Find Extra Minutes Every Day” “Hall of Fame Time-Savers” “Short-Cut Dinners” “Problem-Solving Products” — any and all of which I’m sure I would have found really useful except that I have never had the time to open the magazine. Into the recycling pile it goes.

In five days I’ve finished the laundry room, the main bathroom, the linen closet, my bedroom, and the major coup of getting my husband to give up the big closet he’s insisted he needed for the last 18 years. For the first time in almost two decades I now have all of my clothes in one place, rather than broadcast over four locations throughout the house. Several times a day I’ve opened my pristine closet, organized and color-coded, just to stand there and admire.

Since yesterday I’ve been working on my terrifying study, which is not much bigger than the closet but has over one thousand books in it, as well as all my desultory papers and file boxes of book research and weird random stuff, like a full-body fox stole that guards my 1920s Underwood typewriter…

…a collection of birds’ nests and another of miscellaneous doll parts…

…samples of mineral pigments and a dried lotus blossom from Aswan that, if you put it in water, would smell just like it did when it was fresh. I’ve got an old farmhouse wardrobe that is filled with nothing but foreign editions of Wintering. Where are you supposed to put such things, your two dozen copies of your own novel in Estonian?

One of my favorite treasures in my study is the box that my rabies vaccine came in. On one of my trips to Egypt to research my new novel, I was bitten by a rabid dog. Rabies is so common in Egypt that there are whole hospitals devoted to it, but my bite merited only a bored glance from one of the rabies doctors, even though a chunk of my calf the size of a golf ball was missing. “Just go to the pharmacy,” the doctor said wearily as she pushed an elevator button to escape me. At Egyptian pharmacies you can simply order the rabies vaccine series over the counter, which is what I did. That was easy — getting away from the leering male pharmacists who kept insisting that I needed to have each of the series of shots administered to my bare derriere, with every man in the pharmacy in attendance, was the hard part. The strange part was the vaccine box, which is illustrated with a photograph of a friendly-looking golden retriever:

Except if you look more closely, you see that someone has drawn the notorious rabies slobber all over the dog’s lips:

The cartoonish drool looks like a 7-year-old drew it, but it gets the point across.

There’s so much stuff in my tiny cabinet of curiosities of a study that I am not sure how to get it orderly enough to keep working in it, but I’m trying. One of the problems is the Wall of Books: these are not my reference books — the hundreds of books I use for my current book project — but the myriad novels, poetry, and quirky nonfiction title that are lined up and ready to be read, as well as the piles of same that I’ve read but can’t put away elsewhere in the house because I haven’t cataloged them yet.

When I read I underline anything I think might be useful to my work — vocabulary words, memorable phrases and unique metaphors — and then I catalog all that I’ve underlined in electronic files. It takes a couple of hours per book to record my notes, and I’ve fallen far behind. I mean years behind. The neurotic in me can’t put those books away until I’ve cataloged them, so I’m basically drowning in a sea of books that never go away.

Which brings me to Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water, her second novel, based on her experience in a mental hospital. Frame is one of my very favorite writers, a true genius whose excruciating sensitivity was both her  burden and her gift. This is how her narrator in Faces in the Water describes what happened to her:

“I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world drifting away through a violet-colored sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears.”

Faces in the Water is one of my Uncataloged Books, and I think it’s now been waiting its turn in my study for eight years. So it’s not like it’s here because of Cakewalk, but in that weird numinous way these things happen, when I picked it up to dust under it, this is the passage the book opened to:

“The nurses, feeling bored because there hadn’t been a recent fight, would fetch a bag of sweets from the tin which was bought every fortnight as part of the Social Security allowance for the patients. The lollies would be showered into the middle of the day room and it would be first come first served with fights developing, people being put in strait jackets, whistles blowing; and the tension which mounted and reached its peak at intervals — both in the patients and in the nurses who long ago had to suppress any desire to ‘nurse’ and were now overworked and degraded, in many a case sadistic, custodians — found its release, for a time.

After a lolly scramble, when the fights had been dealt with, there was unusual quietness and dreaminess and sometimes laughter, and those who had been successful in the rush held tight to their sweet sticky booty. The toffees always had the same taste, of dark swampy syrup that made one feel sick and at the same time gave comfort…

My own taste for toffees came at night when, being hurried along the corridor to bed, I felt such pangs of hunger that I became skillful at darting unobserved into the open pantry, and sometimes snatching a handful of toffees from a newly opened tin. But that was a rare occasion. More often I seized in one hand a slice of bread from the bin and delved honey from a large tin, pasting it, ants and all, with my fingers across the bread, and thrusting the whole in the sweaty hairy hollow under my arm, and withdrawing it and eating it, salt and sweet and gritty, in the quiet of my room.”

4 comments » | Books, CAKEWALK, candy

Cakewalk 101, Part 2: My Stalker, Tom Hanks, or Ingredients and What to Do with Them

June 1st, 2010 — 8:23am

Back in the day when I sat through a lot of command-performance family Sunday drives, I made up a mental game for myself that I called Zebra/Button. My idea was that if you thought hard enough, you could find a connection between anything in the world and any other thing, no matter how unrelated they seemed — even a zebra and a button. I whiled away many a tedious hour discovering threads of connection that I was sure would relegate me to the status of savant if I ever deigned to tell anyone what I knew.

Many years later, I was working at my first job in the editorial department of North Point Press. The lion’s share of my time was spent organizing and responding to the “slush pile,” the literal piles of manuscripts stacked up in listing towers all over my office. I was all but buried in manuscripts, and periodically my bosses and I would take armfuls and read until it became obvious whether the manuscripts in question had any hope of being published by our small literary press. Most of them just didn’t fit into the categories of books championed by North Point, but as I wrote in Cakewalk, every once in a while we were rewarded “by something priceless popping up — sometimes good, though more often something so thrillingly bad it became the topic of our weekly Friday afternoon staff parties. My favorite was the epic novel about a nineteenth-century livestock drive across the western plains, a heroic tale of wanderlust and bravery and tragic consequences, of murderous rustlers and five-thousand-head stampedes and rugged male bonding that could have been another Lonesome Dove except that the earnest author’s crusty, do-or-die protagonists were wrangling a flock of turkeys.”

Regardless of the quality of the writing of the tomes surrounding my desk, I never ceased to be impressed by the physical evidence of so much blood, sweat, and tears, the vision and tenacity of so many people who had not just managed to write a whole book, but possessed the courage it so obviously took for them to send their work out into the world for the assessment of strangers. North Point was a place with high ideals, and I took those ideals to heart, writing something encouragingly personal and signing my name to every rejection slip I sent out with the manuscripts I returned to their hopeful authors.

One of those authors was a local writer named Amos Hanks, who had submitted his hand-written memoir for the approval — or not — of North Point’s editors. If you’ve read Cakewalk, you already know who Amos Hanks is. But whether you’ve read Cakewalk or not, there’s more to the story…

Amos Hanks’ memoir just wasn’t the kind of book North Point published. He was a regular guy who’d been in, I think, the Navy, and most of his memoir detailed jobs working as a short-order cook in the Bay Area and car camping with his kids. In my rejection letter I wrote that I too remembered the pre-seatbelt-law days of rolling around in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon.

Amos was an amiable guy who didn’t want to take no for an answer, it turned out, and he was willing to make a deal. If I’d reconsider publishing his book, he told me over the phone, he could set me up with his son. Tom Hanks.

That’s the part of the story I told in Cakewalk. But as I’ve said before, my manuscript got way too long, and some of it ended up in another version of a slush pile. Such as the varied enticements Amos Hanks dangled in front of me to try to get me to publish his book:

“He’s a great kid, my Tom. A really good boy. He went to Skyline High, you know it, in Oakland? But you don’t have to go to Oakland — he knows Berkeley like the back of his hand! He was a busboy at Spenger’s Fish Grotto. I bet he could still get you a discount on a nice fish dinner.”

“He’s gonna be a big star! You just watch, this movie with the mermaid is just the beginning. Maybe you saw him in his tv show, Bosom Buddies? You did? So I don’t have to tell you, he likes girls. He’s a real gentleman.”

“Well, he’s divorced. Well, not yet. But his kids are real good kids. And he’s been split up from their mother for a while. He’s been dating a real nice girl, Rita, but it’s not like they’re married or anything! I mean, married to Rita. Just the first one. But like I said, they’re just dating. He’s gonna be a big star, the world is his oyster! And what’s the harm in a nice fish dinner?”

A few years later, having not had a nice fish dinner with Tom Hanks, I was living in the tiny beach town of Pacific Grove on the Monterey coast. I had a little baby and a bad marriage to a mostly absent husband and a very large untrainable dog in a tiny, drafty house. My life was like that puzzle about the boat, the fox, the chicken and the bag of seed: all of it needs to get across the river in the boat, but only one at a time, so in what order do you take them across the river so nothing gets eaten? In my case, it was about how to keep the baby, the dog, and myself fed, safe, and reasonably sane with absolutely no help.

One day I set out with the baby, the dog, the stroller, extra diapers, snacks, and plastic bags for our regular daily walk. During the night I’d been bitten on the face by a spider, and I looked like Mount Vesuvius was angrily erupting on my forehead. It was pouring rain, and I couldn’t get through any of the police barricades that had been set up all over my little town: a movie was being shot on the main street, and I had to walk across the soggy bottom of a hillside to get to a place where I could let my wild young dog loose without having him run into traffic.

Right after my dog had run by the stroller at 50 miles an hour and sprayed the baby, me, and himself completely with mud, I heard shouting. “Hey! That dog! What is it!” It was a man’s voice. I looked up and saw two tall men in suits hurrying down the hillside. It was Tom Hanks and a bodyguard. Tom was the one yelling about my dog.

My dog responded by running up to Tom Hanks and leaping at him, rearing to his full height and placing his huge muddy paws on Tom’s lapels.

This is not my Scottish deerhound, and this is not Tom Hanks, but now you get the idea.

“Great dog!” Tom enthused as he tousled my dog’s filthy head. “What is he? Are they good with kids? I’m making a movie in town with a dog, but he slobbers in slimy ropes…”

As Tom and I chatted about dogs, I started wondering if I should say, “Hey, did you know your dad tried to set us up?” And then I gradually realized that not only was I dripping wet and still wearing maternity clothes a good six months after my son was born, but I looked like a three-eyed gorgon with my spider bite, and I was holding a plastic bag full of dog poo. I beat a hasty retreat as soon as I could wrestle my dog off of Tom Hanks’ suit.

Fast forward another few years. I was attending some kind of celebratory ceremony in Oakland for Rawley Farnsworth, the drama teacher from Skyline High School, and there were rumors that his former student, Tom Hanks, was going to make an appearance. Oh no, him again? I thought, and almost didn’t go. One of the authors I worked with at North Point, Anne Lamott, has a great descriptive phrase for people like me who have that combination of egotism and abasement borne of having narcissistic parents: you’re the “piece of shit around which the world turns.” Great, I was thinking about Tom Hanks, who, if he showed up, would be surrounded by hundreds of people, but nonetheless, I was sure, he’ll see me and say, Hey, there’s that dumpy young mother with the third eye and the dog poo bag who ruined my suit. But my soon-to-be second husband, Gary, was covering the event for the newspaper he worked for at the time, and he talked me into going.

So there we were in some lovely old theatre in Oakland, and as the rumor of Tom Hanks actually being in the building swelled to a crescendo of excited whispering, I realized I had to pee. I wandered around at the back of the theatre trying to find the women’s bathroom through the falls of heavy velvet curtains. I managed to pull a couple of curtains aside, and found myself staring into a room backstage, where a bunch of people with walkie-talkies were crowded around Tom Hanks. Oh god, would he never leave me alone!

“Sorry, just looking for the ladies’ room,” I mumbled as I turned and fled, though absolutely nobody had noticed I was there.

But is Tom ever satisfied? Oh no. A few years ago I traveled to Greece to meet with artist and art historian Euphrosyne Doxiadis, one of the premier experts on the Fayum portraits of Greco-Roman Egypt. A portrait in Euphrosyne’s book, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, had inspired my second novel (six years later, it’s almost done), and we were going to spend several days together at her home on a small Greek island before I traveled on to Egypt for more research.

Euphrosyne met me at the Athens airport with an apology.

“I’m so sorry, Kate, but I’m afraid our time may be cut short by some socializing. There are some friends of friends from Hollywood staying on another island nearby, and they’ve invited us to visit. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not,” I said, though I was eager to spend every minute possible talking to Euphrosyne about her own research. “Who are they?” I asked.

“Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and their family.”

When Euphrosyne and I arrived on the island where Tom and Rita were vacationing with their family, Tom was just walking back to the house from a swim in the pool. They couldn’t leave their house, even swim in the ocean, because the paparazzi were camped out in speed boats along the beach. Even so, they’d set out an opulent Greek lunch, some of it prepared expertly by Rita’s mother, and greeted us like old friends.

“Actually, we’ve kind of met before…” I told Tom.

“Oh my god, that was Turner and Hooch,” he said when I told him that I was the lady with the huge muddy Scottish deerhound in Pacific Grove. He didn’t seem to remember the spider bite or the dog poo.

“That sounds just like your dad!” Rita said after I told them about my conversation with Tom’s father.

After lunch they gave us a tour of their house. On Tom’s side of the bed was a copy of Dan Brown’s mega-bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code.

“A friend gave it to me to read,” Tom said, smiling and seeming a little chagrined. We’d just spent several hours talking about  politics and history and literature and art, and I’d given them a copy of Wintering, which Rita placed on her side of the bed. “What can I say?” Tom continued. “I’m on vacation. And it’s definitely a page-turner.”

So…what does this have to do with ingredients and what to do with them? Or zebras and buttons?

Nothing. I just like the story.  I’ll get to the ingredients and stuff next time.

(And thanks to Cynthia Dobbs for reminding me of the Anne Lamott quote!)

2 comments » | CAKEWALK, General

The Brownies Heard ‘Round the World, or Cakewalk 101, Part 1: Equipment

May 26th, 2010 — 9:50pm

Surely every obsessive-compulsive baker shares my megalomaniacal fantasy that one of her best recipes will end up famous, clamored for the world over. Today must be my day for fantasy fulfillment, because my recipe for chewy fudge brownies is in The New York Times! I have never been so proud! There’s even one of those food-porn close-up shots of three of my brownies stacked on top of each other unabashed, like the teenage models in American Apparel ads, or a painting by Balthus. One little crumb has fallen seductively to the table, daring you to pluck it up between your fingers and eat it . . . well, in the photo that ran in the paper, there was a crumb . . .

Thank you, photographer Andrew Scrivani of the New York Times

At the lofty Times, it’s not enough for the reporter to test the recipe and vouch for it – a recipe tester has to try it out, too. Novelist and Mothers Who Think contributor Alex Witchel, who made the brownies for her biweekly column in the Dining section, “Feed Me,” told me during a fact-checking phone call that not only did she think my brownies were “like crack” (“I have to get these things out of my house! Now!”), but that the recipe tester thought so, too. Oh, the glory! I can hardly stand it.

Alex’s question about whether to use a glass baking pan or a metal one reminded me that I planned to offer some of my time-tested baking tips for Cakewalk’s readers, so here is part one of that post on Cakewalk 101: Equipment. These are the items I find indispensible for baking.

BOWLS: I used to like those big vintage earthenware mixing bowls because they were pretty and homey, but I always got nervous using a hand mixer – would the bowls crack or the glaze flake off into my cookie batter? Eventually, a few of them did crack, though mostly because they ended up dropped on the floor. I still keep them for backup, but in recent years I’ve moved on to sets of graduated metal bowls with rubberized bottoms. They don’t slip, they’re easy to clean and they’re lighter for pouring out batter.

MIXERS: I didn’t have a stand-up mixer until I was given one as a wedding present in my thirties, but there’s no denying that a standard KitchenAid is the only way to go. Get an extra bowl, too, great when your recipes call for beating egg whites separately, or for splitting large volumes of doubled recipes. And I also have a KitchenAid hand mixer that comes in handy for little jobs and taking with you when you’re baking remotely.

FOOD PROCESSOR or BLENDER: They’re not always interchangeable, but having one or the other is helpful, if not both.

MEASURING SPOONS and MEASURING CUPS: Forget those cutesy sets of spoons for measuring out a “smidgin” or a “pinch” and such, you’ll never use them. Get a set of metal measuring spoons (tablespoon, teaspoon, half teaspoon, quarter and eighth) and put them on a key ring if they don’t already come on a ring. Also get a set of metal cup measures as well as at least one glass liquid measuring cup: I have a 4-cup, 2-cup, and 1-cup.

WOODEN SPOONS: You’ll never find them in a commercial kitchen anymore, but I love the feel of them. They won’t damage the surface of your pots and pans and the handle is always cool while you stir.

WHISK: Metal balloon whisks are indispensable for stirring up flour before measuring as well as just about everything else.

SPATULAS: I love spatulas, but I’ve gone through dozens and dozens of cheap wooden and plastic-handled rubber spatulas over the years  — they break when you’re stirring dense batters, or the rubber end slips off the handle, or the wood gets gunky inside the rubber. Or villains in your household use them to stir their scrambled eggs, and the spatula end melts into postmodern sculpture. Get yourself a heatproof, silicone spatula with a metal handle, like one of these:

Make sure everyone in your household knows that this particular spatula is not for flipping pancakes or making scrambled eggs! “Heatproof” is a relative term, and they will eventually melt on the edges if they’re deployed on highly heated surfaces.

You also need at least one good thin metal spatula for lifting cookies from baking pans and that sort of thing. Here are my two favorites:

And for icing cakes and cookies, thin, flexible offset spatulas, like these:

METAL RULER: It comes in handy all the time, especially for scoring cookies and candies and making even-sized portions.

THERMOMETERS: You want an oven thermometer to, um, check your oven temperature and make sure it’s accurate, and a candy thermometer for getting sugar syrups, jams and candies to the correct temperature.

KNIVES: Your favorite sharp chef’s knife comes in handy for baking, as does a non-serrated table knife for leveling flour while measuring, etc..

ROLLING PIN and ROLLING RINGS: I use an ancient wooden rolling pin with fixed handles that I think was a pasta roller in a previous life, and another elaborately carved old pin that was used to make imprinted springerle cookies (and is great for decorating gingerbread!).

Many people like the weight and cool temperature of marble rolling pins over wooden ones. I highly recommend rubber rolling pin rings, which you put on your rolling pin to roll out dough to exactly the thickness you want. Genius!

DOUGH SCRAPER: It’s a square of metal with a wooden handle on one side, used to scrape the leftover dough from the surface where it was kneaded or rolled. It’s also great for scraping up flour after rolling cookies.

ZESTER: I use citrus zest in so many recipes I should really get a microplane, but I still use the tiny side of my trusty pyramid grater.

SIFTER: I use my sifter less often for flour these days than for sifting cocoa and powdered sugar. (For flour, a good whisking before measuring is usually all you need to do.) You can also use a sifter to shake powdered sugar over the surface of cookies or a baked cake to make it pretty.

PASTRY BRUSHES: These, like rubber spatulas, tend to be ruined by people using them for the wrong purposes, like school art projects. Get a couple in different sizes and hide them.

PASTRY BLENDER: A pastry blender is the best tool ever for mixing flour and fat into light, flaky pastry. I’ve had my grandmother’s wooden-handled pastry blender for a thousand years. That is, I had it until I took it to a rented beach house over Gary’s fifty-fifth birthday weekend to make blackberry crostatas from the berries we picked in the lane ourselves – and then left my favorite baking tool behind when we returned home. I never got it back, sob. What you want is a wooden handle with rungs of flat (not rounded) metal coming out of it in a sort of arched horseshoe shape. Push the metal part against your hand to find out if they stay in place when pressure is applied. If the metal rungs bunch together (as the rounded wires on these ones, pictured below, tend to do), it won’t work — keep looking for another pastry blender.

This is not the pastry blender you want.

And neither is this. Feh.

WAX PAPER and PARCHMENT PAPER: I use wax paper almost every time I bake – perfect for measuring dry ingredients and then pouring the excess back into their respective containers. Parchment paper is equally useful.

BAKING PANS: These are the ones I use all the time. Light-colored metal helps to keep baked goods from browning too much on the bottom, which is also why I prefer glass baking and pie pans: the bottoms will be crisp but not burned.

light-colored, heavy metal rimmed baking sheets (two or three at least)

9 x 13 glass baking pans

8- or 9-inch round, light-colored metal cake pans (I have three)

8- or 9-inch round springform cake pan (that’s a cake pan with a removable bottom)

an angel food cake pan with a removable bottom

a bundt cake pan in whatever shape or design you like

cupcake or muffin pans with 12 cup indentations (two or three)

9-inch glass pie pans (two)

a round or oval ceramic baking dish for bread puddings, fruit crisps, etc.

tart pans: I have 8- and 10-inch round fluted metal pans and another that’s 8 x 10-inch rectangular

two or three standard-sized metal loaf pans

WIRE COOLING RACKS: Get some that fit inside your rectangular baking sheets for use when you’re glazing cookies and cakes – that way the drips go onto the pans rather than spreading all over your counter.

…Next time at Cakewalk 101, useful ingredients to have on hand and what to do with them, based on the frustration and triumph of long experience…

8 comments » | Baking, baking tips, Books, CAKEWALK, Motherhood, Recipes

Cakewalk’s Public Debut

May 13th, 2010 — 1:22am

I’m about to run off to The Booksmith on Haight Street for my first reading from Cakewalk, which was published yesterday. But first I thought I’d give a glimpse of what I’m bringing with me, because the reading is also a party, and I’ve spent the day baking…what else is new.

On the menu tonight are Verboten German Chocolate Cupcakes, Pink and White Animal Cookies, Salted Caramel Cupcakes, and Absolutely Best Chocolate Chip Cookie dough, which I’m going to bake up in my Easy Bake Oven. I thought bringing an Easy Bake Oven to my readings was a stroke of genius: who doesn’t want to smell cookies baking while listening to someone read about baking cookies? Unfortunately the trial run with the EBO revealed that it smells more like burning plastic than carmelizing sugar and butter, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Pink and White Animal Cookies

Everything ready to go to The Booksmith

The Salted Caramel Cupcakes are a Cakewalk Outtake, sort of: the frosting is in the book, utilized for the Brown Sugar Pound Cake recipe, but the yellow cake it goes with was cut from the manuscript when its chapter got the ax.

I love this yellow cake, an old southern recipe called “Hot Milk Cake.” It’s an unusual procedure: you heat the butter and milk together to boiling and pour it over the dry ingredients and eggs, stirring fast so the eggs don’t curdle. It smells like paradise when it’s in the oven, and the cake is spongy and light and delicious. It showed up for the first time in my life in Mothers Who Think, in an essay by contributor Maurine Shores on her childhood summers on the North Carolina coast, during which an eccentric “Cake Lady” supplied local vacationers with freshly baked cakes. Maurine’s family’s favorite was the Cake Lady’s Caramel Cake: the fragrant yellow Hot Milk Cake iced with a caramel frosting that is really a thoroughly addictive candy in disguise. Of course we ran the recipe along with the essay, and then my partner-in-crime, Camille Peri, and I became undeniably obsessed with the Caramel Cake.

In fact, everyone we knew became obsessed with the Caramel Cake. We made it to bring into the Salon office to share with our coworkers, and we made it for parties, and we made it into cupcakes for the kids’ school birthdays. It was the ubiquitous cake of the San Francisco internet heyday. Everyone who ate it wanted the recipe, and in those early days of the World Wide Web it was so smugly satisfying to be able to say, “just download it off our site.”

Just to be fancy for tonight’s reading I made the Caramel Cake cupcakes into Salted Caramel Cupcakes [LINK]: a pinch of Maldon salt flakes sprinkled over the swirl of frosting before it sets. Fleur de sel would work, too.

Caramel Cupcakes in formal dress, with Maldon salt

5 comments » | Baking, Books, CAKEWALK, Motherhood, Recipes

Songs in the key of life

May 4th, 2010 — 8:51am

Some chapters in life seem to come equipped with theme music. I can’t think of my first year of college without the thumping percussive downbeat of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” thrashing from the boys’ rooms in my coed freshman dormitory. Incongruous it may be, but the slideshow of memories I have from my maiden voyage to Europe at twenty-five comes with Bruce Hornsby as the soundtrack: my traveling companion brought along her boom box and just one cassette tape, so that’s what we listened to, over and over, as we tramped through Italy and France for a summer. I see us at our impromptu dance party in Florence, convened in the piazza between the Duomo – the cathedral’s Gothic façade like a candy box in its stripings of pink, green and white marble – and the octagonal Baptistry, one of city’s oldest buildings, a jewel of a place I hadn’t wanted to leave when I stepped inside and saw its glittering Byzantine mosaics. That night, with the building where Dante was baptized on one side of us and the architectural feat that launched the Renaissance on the other, we were dancing to “Every Little Kiss” with a pack of bemused Italian boys trying to cajole us onto their Vespas. It was sort of ridiculous, but it was sort of great, too.

After my first marriage broke up, a redemptive love affair played out against the melancholy flamenco ballads of the Gypsy Kings.  And for the four years I spent feverishly listening for the voice of Sylvia Plath, I could listen to nothing else but Pablo Casals’ recordings of Bach’s haunting suites for cello.

When I think of Cakewalk, I hear only one melody: “Love You” by the Free Design, a song I first heard when I was a small child. The Free Design was a sixties-era singing group, a family with voices as harmonious and pure as seraphim. Their song (my song, I believed it to be) was so infused with the unhindered joyous innocence of childhood – something I yearned for though I knew my family was unhappy, my childhood anything but secure and innocent — that I could never forget it.

I didn’t hear “Love You” again for what must have been almost forty years. By then I was the mother of a son on his way to college, a daughter going into middle school. I was living the life I’d hoped for: I was content, the family I’d made was thriving, I spent my days writing with cats in my lap and a dog snoring at my feet. The last thing I expected was to be revisited by my own confusing, bittersweet childhood, but there it was: “Love You” was the song playing during the cakewalk game during the spring picnic at Celeste’s new school. I’d never been in a cakewalk, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity even though I was the oldest contestant by at least three decades.

To win a cake on your first try at the game is one thing. To win the cake as the theme song of your childhood plays accompaniment seems verging on the numinous.  I didn’t know then, three years ago, that I was going to write a book about my childhood, about the sweetness I could still find amidst the bitter, but as I stood in the new green grass of a San Francisco park with a besprinkled, three-layer chocolate cake in my hands, still hearing the words of the song replaying in my head, trees swaying their crowns in the breeze, the day glorious, children squealing and chasing each other with cans of whipped cream all around me, in the way of all writers I thought to myself, maybe I can use this someday.

Knowing where to end a story is almost always hard, and especially so when it’s the story of your life. Somewhere along the timeline of writing Cakewalk, though, I remembered…the cakewalk. And the song.  If I could have included a recording of “Love You” to play along with the reading of every copy of Cakewalk, I would have. Since that proved impractical, you can find the story of the cakewalk and the lyrics to the song in the book, for which I offer grateful thanks to The Free Design and the Dedrick and Zynczak families. And here you can learn more about The Free Design, and listen to (and better yet, buy!) “Love You.”

Cakewalk, A Memoir, will hit the bookstores next week after a lifetime in the making, and just yesterday I revisited the scene of its initial inspiration: Celeste’s school’s spring picnic, held every May for the last ninety years. This time, there was one event during the afternoon that was even sweeter than the cakewalk: every year, after all the younger classes sing songs and recite poetry for their families and teachers sprawled out on the grass, the school’s eighth graders weave ribbons around a maypole as a final ritual together before they scatter to different high schools. My little girl was one of those eighth graders this year.

Celeste

Maybe such a ritual seems old-fashioned in 2010, when eighth graders have iphones and blue hair and Facebook pages. Some of the kids seemed a little embarrassed by their crowns of wildflowers – or, more accurately, like they thought they ought to be embarrassed. But when the music started, they all joined the dance.

Give a little time for the child within you
Don’t be afraid to be young and free.
Undo the locks and throw away the keys
and take off your shoes and socks, and run, you.

Run through the meadow and scare up the milking cows
Run down the beach kicking clouds of sand.
Walk a windy weather day, feel your face blow away
Stop and listen, love you.

Be like a circus clown, put away your circus frown;
Ride on a roller coaster upside down
Waltzing Mathilda, Carrie loves a kinkajoo,
Joey catch a kangaroo, hug you.

Dandelion, milkweed, silky on a sunny sky,
Reach out and hitch a ride and float on by;
Balloons down below blooming colors of the rainbow,
Red, blue and yellow-green I love you.

Bicycles, tricycles, ice cream, candy
Lolly pops, popsicles, licorice sticks.
Solomon Grundy, Raggedy Andy
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, home free.

Cowboys and Indians, puppy dogs and sand pails,
Beach balls and baseballs and basketballs, too.
I love forget-me-nots, fluffernutter sugar pops
I’ll hug you and kiss you and love you.

–THE FREE DESIGN, 1969

Many thanks to Dorte Lindhardt for the photographs!

6 comments » | Books, CAKEWALK, Family, Motherhood, Uncategorized, Writing

Pink Birthday Cupcakes for Emma, via Mount Etna

April 26th, 2010 — 7:09am

I’ve had a thing for blood oranges ever since I first saw them at the incomparable Berkeley Bowl market more than twenty-five years ago. I asked the nearest produce guy about a bin of small oranges blushed red like peaches, and I thought I heard him wrong when he said they were “blood oranges.” It sounded a little too gruesome for a fruit. But he cut one open with the knife he kept in his green apron, and I got it –  the flesh was mottled orange and red, the juice a clear vivid pink. And was it my imagination or did they actually taste a little different from an ordinary orange?

According to the experts, blood oranges do have a more complex, deep flavor than, say, Valencias or navels, both tart and sweet, like raspberries. To me they taste of their exotic history, an import to the southern Mediterranean and thereabouts – particularly Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and Italy, but also Morocco, Greece, and the Middle Eastern countries — from Southeast Asia, brought by Arab traders along the Silk Road, or maybe the Portuguese after Columbus. The Italian arancia and Spanish naranja probably derived from the Arab nãranj, which in turn probably came from the Sanskrit for orange tree, nãranga.  In Sicily any arancia you get is likely to be a blood orange, and they’ll tell you the juice is the blood of Mt. Etna, as Gary and I discovered on our honeymoon. Every morning with our tiny cups of searing espresso and flaking cornetti we were served spremuta d’arancia, freshly squeezed over ice to cool it of its mythic vulcanism. The idea didn’t seem entirely farfetched as we sipped our brilliantly red juice while sitting at a table overlooking the rocky Ionian coast off Taormina, bougainvillea blooming all down the steep cliffside and Mt. Etna belching smoke in the far distance behind us: the three cyclopes at work, forging thunderbolts for Zeus.

Blood oranges still have that faraway appeal even though you can find them readily through the winter and into spring, and they’re usually no more expensive than their more ordinary cousins.  I hoard blood oranges like a squirrel hoards acorns, and I can’t resist any opportunity to substitute blood orange for the plainer varieties: I segment them into winter salads with kale and sliced fennel, add blood orange bitters to margaritas, stew them with chicken and dates, cook them into marmalade.

If I see them mentioned on a menu, I want whatever it is. Who wouldn’t want sorbet the crimson of roses with the flavor of a morning in Cadiz, like this one at Camino Restaurant in Oakland?

Camino's Blood Orange Sorbet with candied pomelo peel

Blood oranges figure prominently in several of my favorite cakes: sliced in their skins and sautéed with brown sugar and butter for the eventual candied topping of an upside-down cake, or their zest and juice added to another cake I made up when I was missing the flavors I remembered from past trips to the sunny Mediterranean – an almond and polenta torte with blood orange and lemon, and depending on whether you’re feeling Sicilian or Spanish or Venetian, the options of saffron, cinnamon, and cloves.

This year I used what I figured might be my last blood oranges of the season to make birthday cupcakes for my friend Emma. Emma is Greek, so I thought she’d enjoy the blood oranges’ generalized nod to her cultural heritage. Plus Emma often has a streak of pink in her platinum blonde hair, so I knew she’d like the color.

The cupcakes are a variation on the Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe from Cakewalk, with the blood orange zest rubbed into the sugar before creaming with the butter, and the juice as a partial substitute for the milk. Orange flower water and either lemon or orange extract add to the fragrance and flavor, and though the cakes don’t look particularly orange (or pink or vermilion for that matter), the frosting – also using zest, juice and the citrus flavorings – is gorgeously, festively pink. There’s nothing like pink cake to make you feel like it’s your birthday.

You can find the recipe for Blood Orange Birthday Cake and Cupcakes in Cakewalk, but here is my Castle in Spain (or Villa in Siracusa, or Palazzo in Canaregio) Cake.

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Castle in Spain (or Villa in Siracusa, or Palazzo in Canaregio) Cake

April 26th, 2010 — 7:06am

Stuck in San Francisco or St. Louis, wishing for Seville or Spoleto? Never fear: your Mediterranean fantasy is a mere two blood oranges away.

Zest and juice of 2 blood oranges, in separate containers
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal (not polenta)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¾ cups ground almonds (or almond meal)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
½ tsp vanilla
½ tsp lemon extract
½ tsp orange flower water
½ tsp almond extract
Confectioner’s sugar

Preheat the oven to 375˚ and butter and flour an 8” springform cake pan. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt and set aside. Rub the zest into the granulated sugar until well mixed.

Cream the butter for a minute or two, then add the sugar and beat until creamy and light. Mix in the ground almonds, then add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the juice and extracts and mix well, then fold in the flour-polenta mixture by hand with just a few strokes, just until the dry ingredients disappear.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top, then bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top is deeply golden brown but the center is still not quite set. There will be a circle about 3 inches across that will still be a little unsteady when you lightly touch or jiggle the cake.

Cool the cake in the pan for 15-20 minutes, then loosen the sides of the pan and allow to cool thoroughly. Dust the top with confectioner’s sugar. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

VARIATIONS:
In general:
–Substitute other lemony or orangey citrus if blood orange is not available: oranges, tangerines, meyer lemons, lemons
–Use 2 cups ground almonds for firmer texture
–Use polenta instead of cornmeal, but it will be too crunchy for most people

Geographically particular:
–Spanish or Sicilian Style: Add 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads to the juice and allow to dissolve while putting the rest of the batter together. Add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the flour-cornmeal mixture.
–Venetian Style: In addition to the saffron and cinnamon in the Spanish or Sicilian Style (above), add 1/4 teaspoon cloves to the flour-cornmeal mixture.

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Chocolate Chunk-Espresso Banana Bread

April 22nd, 2010 — 7:44pm

Here’s one way to redeem your bad bananas…

½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/3 cups mashed, very ripe banana (about 5-7 largish bananas)
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
8 ounces high quality chocolate (milk, semisweet or bittersweet), coarsely chopped
1 cup toasted, coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350º.  Butter and flour a 9×5” loaf pan, knocking out excess flour. In a medium bowl cream the butter on medium speed until smooth and fluffy, about 1 minute, then add the sugar and beat until creamy and light, another 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until the mixture is again creamy and light. Mix in the vanilla, then add the bananas, mixing on low just until incorporated.

Whisk the flour, espresso powder, baking soda and salt together and fold into the banana mixture by hand just until the flour disappears. Fold in the chocolate chunks and turn the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 50-65 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (if you insert it and it comes back covered with melted chocolate, try again). If the banana bread is getting too brown on top, cover with foil until it tests done. When it’s ready, let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn out onto the wire rack, top side up, and cool completely. Makes one loaf.

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Redeeming the Bad Banana

April 22nd, 2010 — 7:37pm

I haven’t eaten a banana in fourteen years. Bananas were one of the few fresh fruits I ate daily as a kid – in our house, pears and pineapple and mandarin oranges came out of cans, and otherwise we had apples, watermelon, the occasional berry, and the ubiquitous banana – but my juvenile banana glut isn’t why I don’t eat them now. I went off bananas when I was newly pregnant with Celeste: a banana was the last thing I ate before I was pitched headfirst into morning (and afternoon and evening) sickness. For about four months, twenty-four hours a day, I felt like I was on the deck of a rolling ship in high seas. I groaned on the couch with one foot firmly planted on the floor, like a drunk fighting off the whirling down tornadoes. Whatever I’d eaten the day before was unthinkable to ever eat again, until I was subsisting on a diet of half a plain bagel – if I even saw the other half it was too much for me – and See’s milk chocolate Bordeaux candies. Just the thought of the smell of a banana has made me run the other direction ever since. Weirdly, Celeste, too, can’t stand bananas.

Then early last year, while I was in the last phase of editing the manuscript for Cakewalk, I read a New York Times article that said the most popular recipe on the site allrecipes.com was one for banana bread.  Just about then I was ruthlessly cutting whole chapters and many beloved recipes from my way-too-bloated manuscript, and one of the recipes I most regretted losing was for Nell Cliff’s bananas roasted in rum and brown sugar.

Nell was the mother of my college boyfriend, to this day one of the great influences of my life and the person who taught me more about baking and cooking and than anyone else ever has. She still gets her due – I guess I should really say her just desserts — in Cakewalk, but with only one of the many exemplary recipes she passed on to me. Seeing her roasted bananas on the cutting room floor made me wonder if maybe it was time to try bananas again . . .

Not, however, raw: that is still beyond my capabilities. But I looked up the popular banana bread recipe at allrecipes.com, and it looked like something I might actually be able to stomach, if I doctored it a bit with some flavors I knew I could manage. One of those flavors is chocolate, about which I tend to think in terms of Mark Twain’s statement about whiskey: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is just enough.”

Too much chocolate is almost enough, if you ask me.  So I added chunks of chopped milk chocolate to my banana bread, as well as powdered espresso and toasted walnuts. I brought the fragrant maiden loaf on a canoe trip with stalwart family friends, and when I unveiled it on a gravelly beach during our picnic lunch, after one bite Farhad, who in our circle is the High Priest of the Church of Wretched Excess, started shaking his head and laughing. It was that good.

It’s banana bread as an extreme sport. Unlike most recipes, this one calls for a lot of banana, so it’s got that unmistakable fragrance and flavor, but elevated to another level, which, given my banana problems, is perfectly fine with me. It’s kind of like banana bread candy. You can’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re eating something vaguely healthy. So here’s that recipe, my rendition of Chocolate Chunk-Espresso Banana Bread.

But back to Nell’s roasted bananas, which deserve their own moment of glory. They’re incredibly easy to make and perfect for a last-minute dinner party dessert that you can put together while everyone is lingering over their glasses of wine. Nell made them that way, and because of my naïvete – not just in the kitchen but in polite society — I once put my foot in my mouth when the roasted bananas were presented at the conclusion of an annual party with old family friends. “Oh good, you’ve made the roasted bananas again,” I brayed as we all oohed and ahhed over our plates of sizzling bananas in their pools of rummy sauce. “When you made these at last year’s party, Nell, everyone loved them!”

Nell, the consummate gracious hostess and ever indulgent of my flaws, flinched almost imperceptibly, and her daughter Molly shrewdly steered the conversation toward the deliciousness of our dessert. I didn’t know that a good hostess does her best not to serve the same dish to the same company a second time, nor did I realize that a good guest would have avoided embarrassing her hostess by mentioning such a repeat performance. Now I know better.

Nell’s recipe evolved from one of the cookbooks by Victor Bergeron, the Trader Vic of Trader Vic’s famous San Francisco restaurant, where the theme was Polynesian Tiki Room, the food was great, and the cocktails were strong – that’s where the Mai Tai was invented. Somehow I managed to never write down Nell’s recipe, and in my ramblings through used bookstores over the years I’ve never found the right Trader Vic’s cookbook with the original recipe, but here’s a version of Roasted Rum Bananas that’s pretty close, and I hope it makes up for my roasted banana bad of years gone by.

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One City, Many Books

April 19th, 2010 — 8:10am

This weekend I was one of thirty Bay Area authors feted and feasted as “Library Laureates” at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s 14th annual gala dinner.  Why was I so surprised by the enthusiastic, celebratory crowd of hundreds that had gathered downtown at the Main Library? Maybe it was a holdover from my childhood suspicion that the library — a place where they’d let you borrow their books for nothing, trusting that you’d bring them back —  was a big secret, something you didn’t talk about lest it be discovered you were pulling a fast one and the whole thing was taken away.

The opposite, of course, is true: talking about and supporting our public library system is vital to keeping them open and their resources available – not just books but music and film and news and internet access, career counseling, art exhibits, readings and lectures, computer classes, and of course story time for kids. Maybe these figures about the 16,000-plus public libraries in the U.S. will surprise and impress you as much as they did me:

*Every year, Americans visit their library more than they go to the movies. Every day they borrow 2.1 million DVDs (for free, remember!), in contrast to the 2.2 million rented from Netflix.

*Every day 300,000 Americans get job-search help at their public library. There are 13,000 U.S. libraries offering career assistance (from career counseling to help writing resumes and filling in applications), compared to the 3000 U.S. Department of Labor One-Stop career centers.

*Nearly 12,000 U.S. libraries offer free wi-fi – that’s more than all the Starbucks put together.

*There are more public libraries offering free computer training classes than there are computer training businesses in the U.S.

In San Francisco this weekend, there was even more reason to celebrate: thanks to the passage of a massive city bond measure, the Branch Library Improvement Program created a plan to renovate or rebuild 24 branch libraries across the city. Fourteen of those branches have been completed and reopened, and another eight are now in construction, including my beloved neighborhood library, Golden Gate Valley, about which I feel rather pathologically proprietary, driving by slowly a couple of times a week and surveying the contractors’ modular trailers with a gimlet eye, part rubber-necking voyeur, part self-appointed inspector (Who’s the guy handing out Krispy Kremes? And hey, buddy – you better not chip any plaster off that della Robbia door frame!)

But we weren’t just celebrating our libraries. The Friends of the Library organization hosts this dinner every year to celebrate writers, feeding us filet mignon and toasting us with good wine and urging us to take home the rapturously beautiful table centerpieces at the evening’s conclusion.

It was humbling to say the least to know that you were surrounded by these incredibly generous, visionary folks who not only recognize how vital public libraries are, but back up their convictions with their time and their money. Their mission statement is worth quoting as a standard for community involvement:

“Friends of the San Francisco Public Library is dedicated to creating, stewarding and supporting a superior free public library system in San Francisco. We are committed to raising the standard of excellence of our libraries by funding programs and services beyond what’s allocated in the City’s budget. We believe in free and equal access to information for all.”

Raising the standard of excellence. Above and beyond. Needless to say I wasn’t the only writer who felt genuinely moved and honored to be included at this event. City Librarian Luis Herrera, one of my tablemates, suggested that when all the branches are reopened, we should have a city-wide celebration, and all the Library Laureates of past years would be invited to take part. He won’t have to twist our arms. One by one we each talked about how much libraries have supported us as places of inspiration, as practical resources, as mobile offices: Kathryn Ma talked about being a library “nomad,” visiting one branch or another depending on her mood. Joshua Braff, Allison Hoover Bartlett, Ethan Watters and Katie Williams all revealed that their books were written in libraries – in Ethan’s case, in the very room where we were enjoying our tangerine upside-down cake with blood orange syrup. Victoria Zackheim read from an essay by Malachy McCourt, who remembered “the miracle” of a Carnegie library opening in his boyhood town of Limerick. Here’s what I had to say:

“Libraries and books and the pleasure of reading have always been mixed up in my mind with sugar, with sweetness. That association started with my grandmother, a San Francisco schoolteacher who rewarded me with miniature candy bars when I was learning to read and write. We lived in Sonoma when I was small, when the town, too, was small, and the library was a stately red-brick building set in the middle of the Plaza, right across from my father’s law office and an Italian bakery that sold cinnamon pull-apart cakes. The library, it seemed to me then, was the biggest and most important building in the town, the Rome to which all roads led. They let you take all the books you wanted, bringing them back when you were done, and I was not quite sure I believed it at first.

We didn’t have many books at home. Books, I learned early, were precious things.  My father had taken a job writing and editing encyclopedia entries while he was in law school, and that set of encyclopedias, devoid of any acknowledgment of his contributions, was housed with his law books behind glass in a barrister’s case. There was a set of Time-Life cookbooks nobody looked at but me, and I mostly looked at the pictures. I remember a hardcover copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and my mother’s copy of Anna Karenina from before she was married, and a paperback biography of Jennie Churchill, the mother of Winston; I knew he was famous but I didn’t realize he wasn’t the same person as Alfred Hitchcock until a military history class in high school. My father’s oversized dictionary had its own its stand, and it was always left open, waiting to be consulted, like a magician’s book of spells, or the story of the world. That dictionary was my origination, my Genesis.

In Sonoma I rode my bike to the library every week to check out a stack of books, holding my breath at the circulation desk in case I was told I was too greedy; but the librarians always slid the entire pile back over the counter to me, and I sat cross-legged on the floor of the children’s section, reading on one of the rag rugs, light shafting through the arcing Palladian windows. I could pick anything, unrushed, unquestioned, any day, and as I sat with my books scattered around me, turning the pages of one after the other, the incense of hot cinnamon and caramelized sugar wafted over me through the open windows. How could anything ever be more delicious?

Much of my childhood was more bitter than sweet, but those afternoons at the library are some of my most tangible memories, that and crossing the street to walk home with my shy, lonely father at the end of his work day, my latest stack of library books piled into the basket of my banana-seat bicycle, my father stopping at the bakery on the way home, tucking his folded newspaper under his arm so he could carry his briefcase and the pink bakery box, its strings taut under his fingers.

Libraries and books and the words they protect are still precious to me, still imbued with sweetness, sometimes with the bittersweet, and always with the weight of importance. Even now when I think of how I feel while reading a truly extraordinary book, it’s the same feeling I get from eating the world’s best dessert: the rapture of words filling my mouth, the yearning for it to last.  And I still feel that sense of wondrous awe, of being luckier than could possibly be believed, of getting away with something really great whenever I am in a library.

These days my library is the Golden Gate Valley Branch at Green and Octavia. A Carnegie project built around the same time my grandmother started teaching San Francisco first graders to read in the 1920s, the Golden Gate Valley Branch was designed to resemble a Roman basilica, a long narrow rectangle with a curved apse. Outside, the stone façade drips Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance details – carved garlands, moldings, fluted pilasters. On the inside it’s full of light from the tall windows with their curved, arching glass – Palladian windows like those at the library in Sonoma – and the original corniced shelving is still intact on the walls all around. I love the dignity and solidity of it, and how the building was sited close to the street, with no imposing landscaping to render it less inviting: a treasure box found on the sidewalk, waiting to reveal all it holds to you.

I love this library so much that it has found its way into my second novel, just as Sonoma’s library has shown up in my memoir, Cakewalk. I’ll close with the thoughts of the fictional librarian who works at the Golden Gate Valley branch, whose feelings about what that library means to her are not so different from my own:

Her library. Her sanctuary, her temple. It even resembled a church. She said it sometimes deflectively, jokingly, but the truth was she meant it: that library was her religion, the books it housed and the words within them her one redeeming faith. She carried in her head scenes and sentences and images, the astonishment of recognizing herself in the worlds and words of others. The lines and metaphors accreted in her memory, coming back to her in unexpected moments with the same startling intimacy, like snatches of remembered conversations, or a taste indelibly recalled, a sweetness at the back of her throat, as when she’d first read them. To be there, to hold the books in her hands, was a kind of atonement, a word she used privately in its original sense, at one: a harmony, an accord, a reconciliation. A word she’d learned when she was small, standing before her father’s dictionary.”

When the Golden Gate Valley branch reopens next year, I’ll be there: that too will be an atonement. And I’ll bring the cake.

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