History’s People

I’ve always been interhstoryspeopleested in history although I am terrible for remembering dates and details. What I think I appreciate about history is the impact of people and events on situations.

Margaret MacMillan is a historian and professor of history at Oxford University.  In her book History’s People: Personalities and the PastMacMillan selects a number of figures from the past who stand out for her. The book is organized according to the attributes of those who have made and unmade our world looking specifically at qualities of leadership, hubris, persuasion, daring, curiosity and observation. MacMillan’s storytelling brings history to life and certainly helped me to realize the significance of the personalities of these historical figures and how, given another time or place or person, could have vastly impacted the world we live in today.  A few notable things I remember:

  • if Albert Einstein had not grasped the nature of the atom early in the 20th century could the Allies have developed the atomic bomb during WWII? CURIOSITY
  • if the Supreme Court decision on the 2000 vote count in Florida had gone differently George W. Bush would not have been president. As president, Al Gore would most certainly have resisted the temptation to invade Iraq. LEADERSHIP
  • Margaret Thatcher, Woodrow Wilson, Stalin and Hitler all had driving ambition and lived in times when changes were taking place that gave them opportunities. All four had a firm conviction that they were right in achieving the sort of society and world they wanted but were not prepared to compromise to achieve their ends. HUBRIS
  • William Lyon Mackenzie King exhibited a flair for conciliation and persuasion throughout the great depression and second world war to hold Canada together. PERSUASION

A thoroughly enjoyable and educational read!  I recommend it!

– Christine B.

Reading for Comfort

whenbreath   myname   excellentlombards   lauralamont

This year my husband and I both turned forty, and since then life has taken some turns, unfortunately not always for the best. This happens to everyone. Kids get ill, with things serious enough that a few days off school and a new video game can’t help. The best grandfather in the world can die. Things, sometime bad things, can happen and it’s ok.

That’s what When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi taught me. I know you’ve heard about this book already and you should have.  If you’ve read it, you loved it like I did. If you haven’t it’s probably because the topic, that the writer was a brain surgeon who died tragically of brain cancer at thirty seven, is too sad for you. But it’s not, and you can hold me to this. It’s gorgeous and smart and makes you happy that there are so many wonderful people like Paul was, in the world.  You learn about his widow Lucy, who lives on with their young daughter and the fierce love they carry for Paul. Hard, sad things  happen, and that’s ok.

It’s also good when these things hit us, to find books that let us hide. During these past months I’ve needed to read things, mostly fiction, that kept my mind sharp and moving forward. I love, LOVE, Elizabeth Strout and her newest book My Name Is Lucy Barton was perfect. It was light to carry with me on the train when my grandfather died. It was a simple story written brilliantly about two woman, a mother and her adult daughter, reuniting in a hospital after years apart.  The chapters are short and after each I would close the book and enjoy how calm the book made me feel. Then the train would bump a little and I’d get right back into the story.

Next, I discovered Jane Hamilton through her newest and somewhat autobiographical novel, The Excellent Lombards, which was wonderful. It is the story of a young girl growing up with her family on their apple farm. She loves her family (as crazy as they are) and unlike her brother, makes no plans for her future except to take over the farm one day. She is afraid to think of anything else and can’t imagine why everyone wants her too. It made me laugh out loud.

Then, I got on an Emma Straub kick, a wonderful kick to be on! I had already read and enjoyed her book last year, The Vacationers but I think I liked her newest, Modern Lovers even more. However, it was her first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures that I fell in love with. It is a wonderful, sweeping story of a woman moving from a small rural family home to Hollywood. She becomes a famous actress and tries to juggle her young family in the nineteen twenties. Who knew how Hollywood worked at that golden time! Straub’s writing is infectious as is her personality is you have the time to look her up. She tends to dress like her book covers when going to author events and she also has an adorable family.

After finishing Lucy Barton on a train ride, I realized I was unprepared for the trip home and found myself with moments to spare in a book store. I grabbed Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know,  it’s not a new one and it’s been on my list for a long time and it was completely worth the wait. It’s a perfect story to sink oneself into, a story about people trying to do to right thing, whether in Ireland or Brooklyn, always surrounded by love.

When sad and hard times hit, of course the other route is emerging oneself in fantasy, science fiction, or the Outlander series. But for me I’ve needed to be connected to people, good people, who are also trying to figure things out, how best to move forward for loved ones. Aliens and time-travel wasn’t going to do it for me this time (although in the past they have). These books did the trick to pick me up and away before bringing me home, often with a new way of looking at what was going on around me.

And remember, as long as you have time to read, things can’t really be all that bad.

Sarah C.



Battle of the Confections

How often do you have two books you’ve placed on hold come in at the same time AND they both have a slightly unique word in the title?

Last week The Confectioner’s Tale (by Laura Madeleine) and Confections of a Closet Master Baker (by Gesine Bullock Prado) came in for me at the library. One fiction, the other non-fic. One new, one oldish. Both I’d looked forward to reading. Both had engaging covers…not that we ever judge a book by that!

After a very technical decision process (eenymeenyminymoe) I started with the novel, The Confectioner’s Tale. The book bounces between Paris in 1910 and Cambridge (England, not Ontario) in 1988. A reluctant student, Petra, discovers a mysterious photo of her beloved grandfather. Setting aside her studies, Petra sets out on a quest to learn the truth behind the old black and white.

The back story follows a young man, Gui, who is struggling to survive in Paris in the early days of the 20th century. He works long days, labouring for the railway, sending the majority of his pay home, while dreaming of a better life. This “better life” would be in the kitchen of one of the top patisseries in Paris, learning on the job to become a top if not master baker. A chance encounter with the owner’s daughter and a dramatic rescue during the devastating Paris floods, sets Gui on the path to the career (and the woman) of his dreams. But, as we all know, “be careful what you wish for” are words to heed.

While I found the story, particularly that focusing on Petra’s journey through her grandfather’s past, interesting, the book really didn’t hold my attention completely. I could put it down BUT I was curious enough to read it cover to cover and crave a freshly made raspberry macaron. Onto Confections of a Closet Master Baker.

I learned about Gesine Bullock-Prado through a friend. Yes, the author is Sandra Bullock’s sister but this book isn’t about stars, Hollywood or the movie industry. Those topics are touched upon lightly as Bullock-Prado previously worked as head of her famous sister’s production company. While she and her sister are very close, the Hollywood lifestyle was not for Bullock-Prado. Basically, she hated it.

Bullock-Prado and her husband, Ray, who is also in the movie industry, made the leap. They quit their jobs, moved to Montpelier, Vermont and open a small bakery/coffee shop. Throughout the book, family recipes are shared as are memories, the majority focusing on Bullock-Prado’s mother, a former opera singer.

The stories she shares are in turns humourous and touching. The recipes sound wonderful although some are most definitely not for beginners. I flew through the book, enjoyed each shared memory and made note of a fair number of recipes I definitely want to try.

So, the winner of the Battle of the Confections? Confections of a Closet Master Baker. I’m looking forward to reading her other biography/memoir, “My Life From Scratch.” which I have already placed an interlibrary loan request for as it is not part of the WPL collection. For a list of Bullock-Prado’s cookbooks, visit http://www.gbakes.com/p/books.html

In honour of Bullock-Prado generously sharing family recipes for her favourite baked goods, I will do the same, sharing my great-grandmother’s recipe for devil’s food cake. She first made it in the late 1930s/early 1940s and it has been THE birthday cake recipe in our family every since. Enjoy.

— Sandi H.

Devil’s Food Cake

½ c Fry’s cocoa
2 tsp baking soda
½ c. warm water
¾ c butter, softened
1 ¾ c. white sugar
¾ c sour milk*
2 eggs, room temperature
2 ½ c all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 375F.

Grease 2 – 8” round baking tins. Set aside.

In medium bowl whisk together cocoa, soda, and warm water. Set aside.

In mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Stir in sour milk and eggs. Blend in flour and then the chocolate-soda mixture.

Divide batter evenly between the two pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cakes pass the tooth pick test. Let cool slightly in tins before removing the cakes to cool on racks. When completely cool, ice with your favourite frosting.

* for the sour milk, we measure out the ¾ c milk, add a little lemon juice, and letting stand for a few minutes

What I Discovered While Browsing

lifeparty     nine     fallen

I’m not a big fan of shopping for ‘fun’.  Browsing the stores, just looking at things, is not fun for me: unless it can be browsing for books.  I like browsing even more when those books are on the shelf in the library.  The pressure is off when they are library books because my investment is so small.  I’m not spending any money.  I’m only ‘spending’ the time it takes me to get to the library, find them on the shelves and read a few pages before I decide to continue through to the end.  If I decide to abandon ship and return the book without getting to the end, it’s my secret.  I love it.

In the past few weeks I have found the most interesting books at the library just by wandering through the shelves while I wait for my daughter to finish up her volunteering shifts at the Summer Reading Club desk.  One of the books called out to me when I looked at the spine.  I saw the words ‘life of the party’ and was hooked.  The complete title is The life of the party: the remarkable story of how Brownie Wise built, and lost, a Tupperware party empire and the nugget of the story is right there in the title.  Ms. Wise was an incredible woman who started working as a door-to-door salesperson in the 1950s to support her son.  Through an amazing work ethic, incredible charm and supreme attention to detail, she helped to create the success story of the worldwide brand Tupperware.  Unfortunately she and founder Earl Tupper had a difficult working relationship which led him to fire her and wipe all traces of her devotion to the brand from Tupperware’s history but that is part of what makes this one a page turner.  How did this all happen?  It’s a wonderful snapshot of this time in American history, a fly-on-the wall story of an entrepreneur who was the first woman to be on the cover of Businessweek and a chance to be inspired by a determined trailblazer who put herself into every element of her work.  It wasn’t exactly the party planning guide I thought it would be but, it’s truly fascinating reading.


Another walk by the Non-Fiction shelf yielded a recent Canadian memoir, Fallen: a trauma, a marriage and the transformative power of music, by Kara Stanley.  She is a writer living on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast who has woven current research into brain and spinal cord injuries with the story of her husband’s life-threatening injury from a fall at a construction site.  She begins their story talking about a trip to the grocery store where she is indulging her husband’s fondness for an expensive kind of cheese.  She knows that the cost is high but she feels she can stretch their family budget for him on this trip.  She is a writer and he is a musician who also works as a carpenter and they have a teen son who is away at a soccer camp.  While she shops she is thinking about how fortunate their family is and she buys him a block of this delicious cheese.  The beauty of the language she uses in these first paragraphs sweeps you right into their romance.  When Kara introduces you to the horror of Simon falling from scaffolding two stories down to a tile floor below it’s an instant shock to your system so from the moment she arrives in the intensive care ward to wait for news from his team of specialists you feel like you are right there with her.  She has drawn you in with her careful sentences.  Kara, Simon and their son Eli are supported by a loving group of family, friends and neighbours and she alternates between sharing the story of their friendships and the technical language of the medical approach being taken.  Once I had the book in my hands I almost couldn’t stop reading it but I would have passed it by if not for the subtle style of the cover design.  The broken fifth line in the staff caught my eye and made me wonder how the author was going to talk about the ‘healing power of music’.  It’s quite a force as music has an important part in their love and Simon’s life and the book is worth reading to find out more.  So many of the songs they talk about will be familiar, it’s like you have a soundtrack running through your mind as you read.

I found a much lighter read, something for the beach or cottage, on the Fiction shelves.  The cover had a distinct Audrey Hepburn look to it in bright pink with black and I just could not resist taking it home.  It’s called Nine women, one dress (although I keep telling people that the title is ‘one dress, nine women’  but I end up finding it in the catalogue anyway) and it’s a debut novel by a writer from the Huffington Post.  She lives in New York City which won’t surprise you when you read this book because it gives off that vibe instantly, like you are walking the city streets and riding the subway with the characters, and each chapter introduces you to a different person who comes into contact with the dress.  It’s not just any dress, it’s the LBD of the season!  It’s the dress that every model wants to wear and we all get to be front and centre as the dress walks down the catwalk for the first time, meet the veteran of the New York fashion scene who cut out the pattern to make it (he is my favourite character), several women who wear it for special occasions, a private detective who is investigating a case that involves the dress, one behind-the-scenes Broadway scandal and more than one romance.  It’s light but never silly and seems like a Garry Marshall film but I think that is charming.  I loved the book and if I found this dress in a store I might even wear it but… I don’t really like shopping.  Except for books.  At my local public library.

– – Penny M.

Beneath the Surface

SeaWorld has been in and out of the news so many times in the last few years, it is probably safe to say that people are finally getting the idea that orca whale captivity is a problem. Former SeaWorld orca trainer John Hargrove uses Beneath the Surface to not only document his experiences with the orca whale family belonging to entertainment conglomerate SeaWorld, but he also brings forward the real issue at hand: the selfishness and greed that is orca captivity and performance.

The CNN documentary, Blackfish, ignited the wave of protest against SeaWorld, and in my honest opinion, Beneath the Surface solidifies why these mammoth beasts aren’t meant to perform, but are majestic creatures that belong in the sea. (Side note: If you haven’t seen Blackfish yet, it is a MUST – don’t worry, the library has copies)!!! The revealing truth of SeaWorld’s orca breading program (which has thankfully ended), the aggression between whales in such small enclosures and the multitude of health problems associated with over-chlorinated tanks, are just a few of the revelations Hargrove discusses in detail. Not only is this an eye-opener, but it puts into perspective that orca whales are as intelligent as humans, with social bonds, languages and the ability to love.

John Hargove’s experiences and encounters with orca whales and SeaWorld management left a bad taste in my mouth, and that taste is exploitation, greed and mistreatment. Humans may be classified as superior beings, but the alleged decisions, actions and untruthfulness of the leaders at SeaWorld scream anything but superior. Beneath the Surface cracks the glass ceiling as to why orca captivity harms both humans and the whales, and why the time has come to move away from animal performances and entertainment, to conservation and natural preservation.

Needless to say, I loved this book. I stayed up well into the night, forgetting the time and wanting more, wanting to know the stories of each and every member of the SeaWorld orca troop (from Kasatka to Tilikum and everyone in between). John Hargrove, I salute you. While your job as an orca trainer is now being bashed and stomped on, your insight and truths are necessary at a time when the rest of the world is catching up to your obvious opinion: stop the orca performances, and let the whales live in a seaside sanctuary to spend the rest of their days in peace, outside of a bathtub.

*Note: Many investigative reports have also been done on Canada’s own Marineland. Please check out this YouTube video to learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxSlYfONZyg.

  • Tomis S.

The Couple Next Door

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena is a fast-paced, twist-filled thriller that had me repeatedly questioning the identity of the culprit.  Lapena includes the points of view of a few of her characters which gives readers brief glimpses into their personalities, insecurities, fears and motivations.  She then slowly unveils different aspects of these characters and the secrets they’ve been hiding that will cause readers to question if their earlier predictions were correct.  What really happened?  Who is lying? No one is as they seem and with twists sprinkled liberally throughout I was eager to find out the identity of the culprit.

couplenextdoorThe only criticisms that I’d have for this book is that some of the characters could have had more depth, some of their actions/responses were questionably believable and the ending felt a little expected (I think I was expecting one big, final twist).  But overall I quite enjoyed being along for this suspenseful ride.

The Couple Next Door is a very impressive and well thought out psychological thriller.  It is a highly entertaining, hard-to-put down, ‘nothing-is-getting-done-until-I-know-whodunnit’ kind of read. Highly recommended.

– Laurie P.

What We’re Watching: 1971

 Can citizens ever be justified in committing illegal actions against their government? How about if the government itself is acting illegally?

The movie 1971 looks at some of those questions. On March 8, 1971, a group of eight people broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia) and stole every single document there.

 Up until then, they had participated in peaceful protests against the Viet Nam war, but decided it was time to up the ante. The stolen files showed that the FBI was behind a vast and illegal system of spying on and intimidating American citizens, an issue with plenty of relevance for us today. All hell broke loose when the files were sent to newspapers and published.

 The DVD re-enacts the, shall we say, liberation of the documents– a couple of last minute glitches in the plan made for some very anxious moments. It also interviews some of the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, as the group called themselves. It is interesting to hear what they thought at the time (in 1971) and also their reflections on it 40 odd years after the event. They certainly held deep convictions about trying to end the Viet Nam war. I have to admit to feeling a lot of respect for their point of view and their actions.

 All in all, very interesting viewing.

 N.B. There is a book at WPL on the same subject: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger. I’ve just taken a look at it. Whoa, Nellie! Those people who stole the FBI files deserve a medal for service to their country! The extent of the FBI ‘s illegal activities, as documented in this book, is simply staggering.

– – Penny D.

Let’s Hear It For Tartan!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1990 you have probably heard of Diana Gabaldon’s hugely popular “Outlander” series of time-travelling books featuring strong-willed, ex-Army nurse Clare Randall and Highland warrior, Jamie Fraser.  If somehow those 8 large novels (and the series isn’t wrapped up yet!) escaped your attention, maybe the current “Outlander” TV show has caught your eye.

Between the incredible historical detail (thanks to Gabaldon’s exhaustive amount of research), a cast of intriguing characters and the stunning backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, these books have gripped the imaginations of millions of men and women around the world.

Confession time.  I have never read these books. Over the years, many WPL customers have raved about them to me, encouraging me to give the series a try. Colleagues too have recommended them as the “perfect book for you”.  Yes, with my Irish family plus Scottish and English roots, my reading tastes are decidedly slanted to contemporary British authors and books set in the UK and Ireland. So, I have tried on 3 separate occasions to read “Outlander” and each time didn’t make it past the first couple of chapters. I don’t know why but the books don’t hold my attention.

They did catch Canadian author KC Dyer’s attention, though, and she has written a very cute, funny, charming book called “Finding Fraser”.  This book I read over a weekend.  Actually, I read most of it sitting in the sun on the deck of my favourite coffee shop in Stratford, Balzac’s, but I digress.

“Finding Fraser” is the story of 29-year old Emma Sheridan, a HUGE fan of Diana Gabaldon’s books and great admirer of the fictional character, Jamie Fraser. Emma’s life in Chicago isn’t going so well.  The only job she has done well at and managed to hold onto is coffee shop waitress. Her love life, well, it (like Jamie Fraser) doesn’t exist.

Frustrated and perhaps a bit desperate, Emma decides to sell all of her worldly possession, which are few, quit her job and travel to Scotland. Perhaps in Scotland life will make more sense, will come together, and maybe she’ll even find a real-life Jamie Fraser of her own. In an attempt to make the trip seem more focused than frivolous, she decides to blog about her highland adventure.

“Finding Fraser” is a light, fun, fast read which actually made me quite literally LOL in a few places. Emma’s adventures in Scotland are fairly comedic and I felt in turn sorry for her and, yes, even a little envious at moments.  Fans of the “Outlander” series will enjoy it (and the book does have Gabaldon’s blessing) but, as I have proven, it’s not a prerequisite.

Now, deciding what recipe to share this time round was easy.  It must be shortbread!  I usually make a very traditional shortbread with white sugar, butter and flour. However, one of my favourite shortbread recipes is one shared by a former WPL colleague and is a little different. Warning. It is soooo delicious (especially warm from the oven) and you will not be able to stop at eating just one piece.

Brown Sugar Shortbread

½ lb. butter, softened
½ c. brown sugar, packed
2 ¼ c. all-purpose flour
White sugar (for sprinkling)

Preheat oven to 300F.

Lightly grease a cookie sheet and set aside.  Lightly flour a baking board and rolling pin. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add half the flour. Combine. Add the remaining flour. Stir to combine. Using your hands, gather the dough into a bowl.  Transfer dough to floured baking board.

Knead gently for 3 minutes or until the dough forms a smooth ball.  Pat down, then roll out til the dough is in a rectangular shape measuring 11” x 8” (approx. 1/3” thick).

Using a sharp knife, slice into fingers, approximately 1” x 3”.  Place on baking sheet.  Prick each shortbread finger 3 times with a fork.  Sprinkle each cookie with a tiny amount of white (granulated) sugar.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, depending on the power of your oven. The bottom of the cookies should be slightly golden.

Cool 5 minutes on baking sheet before transferring to cooling racks. Store in an air tight container.