This week’s recipe: Old-Fashioned Doughnut Bundt Cake
And now, more books!
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a book I adored and have read several times. The title character is a cynical, neurotic woman who moved to Seattle from New York but hates it. Her husband is a kind, even-keeled, highly successful man but her marriage is in trouble. Despite her own earlier success in a creative field, she no longer works and now focuses her attention on raising her sensitive, eccentric child, who attends a progressive private school called Galer Street. She resents everyone and everything around her and is clearly dissatisfied with her life.
Today Will Be Different’s protagonist is Eleanor, a cynical, neurotic woman who moved to Seattle from New York but hates it. Her husband is a kind, even-keeled, highly successful man but her marriage is in trouble. Despite her own earlier success in a creative field, she no longer works and now focuses her attention on raising her sensitive, eccentric child, who attends a progressive private school called Galer Street. She resents everyone and everything around her and is clearly dissatisfied with her life. I’m starting to think that Maria Semple can only write one type of main character. (The books even have near-identical scenes where a central character becomes emotionally overwhelmed while listening to a choir sing a religious hymn.) Like Bernadette, Eleanor is unhappy with herself and the world, but while Where’d You Go, Bernadette featured multiple character perspectives, we never almost leave Eleanor’s head, which is an exhaustingly negative place to be.
The whole book takes place over the course of one day, apart from brief flashbacks to Eleanor’s relationship with her sister and husband. Though it’s in many ways an unremarkable day, she runs into seemingly everyone she knows, uncovers deeply buried family trauma, and makes peace with her life. It’s a lot to pack into a slim book, and as a result the non-Eleanor characters feel underdeveloped, more a collection of quirks than actual people. Semple is definitely a funny writer, and as the book progresses and Eleanor gains new insights,
Becoming by Michelle Obama
I admit that I am biased because Michelle Obama is a hero of mine. I love her intelligence, warmth, and style. I think that the job of First Lady is probably immensely difficult for an educated, ambitious woman, but she handled it with remarkable grace despite being relentlessly attacked. That said, I have to say that Becoming is a really, really good political memoir, and Michelle Obama is a really, really good writer. Maybe she had a ghostwriter or a staffer punch it up, but her book is actually enjoyable to read even aside from the content. She’s very self-reflective and makes the non-White House portions of the book just as compelling as the parts after she meets Barack. You can feel the genuine respect and affection she and her husband have for each other coming off the page, and it’s a privilege to get to see inside Barack’s personality since he could be so reserved and inscrutable as president. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it made me think about how far we’ve fallen. How could our country trade in this wonderful, smart, loving family for the Trumps?
The Wonder by Emma Donaghue
The Wonder is based on the true accounts of various “fasting girls” throughout the centuries, young women who claimed to be able to survive on no food at all. In this case, the fasting girl is Anna, an 11-year-old from a backwater Irish village who supposedly hasn’t eaten in four months. Her miraculous feats are attracting attention and offerings from the superstitious Catholics in the vicinity, and so a local committee has paid an English nurse, Lib, to come to town and watch over Anna full time to either verify or disprove the miracle. It’s an inherently interesting and mysterious plot; how is this little girl possibly surviving?
Unfortunately, the book is significantly less interesting than its premise. The beginning is particularly deadly to get through, with the same themes hammered home over and over again. As an educated English Protestant, Lib looks down on the superstitious Irish Catholic rabble, and is sure that Anna’s family is trying to trick her. For the first several chapters, literally every thought that pops into Lib’s head is some variation on either, “I was disgusted by the stupidity of their beliefs and their way of life,” or “That little minx and her conniving family had to be lying, but I couldn’t yet find proof.” Yes, Lib, we get it.
As she gets to know Anna better, she grows fond of the girl, and begins to worry about her. Lib lives in a world of science, not miracles, and she fears that now that Anna is being closely watched, she’ll no longer be able to sneak the food that was no doubt keeping her alive. She tries to convince Anna to eat and, in the process, discovers why she took up the fast in the first place. The book gets much better in this section, only to get worse at the very end (no spoilers but some of our heroes literally ride away on horseback). The third act twist that explains Anna’s fast is undeniably lurid, but it rang true to me as it will, I suspect, to anyone who grew up with shame- and guilt-based monotheism.
The Wonder has interesting things to say about faith versus science, the sexual pathologies of the Catholic Church, and how Lib’s own narrow-mindedness and prejudice prevent her from solving the mystery earlier. Its main flaw is its characters, who never surprise, never change. As soon as you meet Lib’s future love interest, you know exactly who he is and what role he’ll play in the story; ditto for the various stock characters that populate the poor Irish village. Only Anna and Lib show any depth, but unfortunately neither is much fun to spend time with. It’s too bad because this book had a lot of potential.
KL by Nikolaus Wachsmann
This is probably the most comprehensive history of the Nazi concentration camp system (KL) ever written, and it’s an amazing work of scholarship. I’ve written on this blog before about how, like many Jewish people, I’ve been steeped in Holocaust education my whole life, but I learned a lot (most of it disturbing and horrifying) from this book. I didn’t know the extent of the system, but Wachsmann gives equal time to the smaller satellite camps as to the more infamous ones. (One underground labor camp, Dora, sounds like it was literal hell on earth, but until I read this book I had never heard of it.) He is able to write in a manner that’s clear-eyed and unemotional despite the horror of the subject, and unearths voices from both victims and perpetrators that allow deeper insight on how and why this happened.
KL moves chronologically, from the opening of Dachau for political prisoners in 1933 all the way through liberation. It runs the whole grisly gamut: violence, torture, starvation, gassing, forced labor, eugenics, medical experimentation. Any person with a heart looks at the concentration camps and thinks, “How did this happen?”, but Wachsmann shows how it happened, in granular detail: everyday life for different categories of prisoners, systems of control, and basic camp management. There were many sadists drawn to the KL, but also various time-servers and careerists who thought it was a good move professionally. Even ordinary citizens not directly involved with camp administration knew what was going on; many camps were located near population centers, and their existence was mentioned widely in media and propaganda. Considering the debates going on today about inhumane immigrant detention policies and the tear gassing of people at the border, it’s chilling to read how easy it was for people to accept the evil in their midst.
Quick review of other books I’ve read this year:
Hello Sunshine by Laura Dave – an entertaining enough beach read and I enjoyed the peek into the world of food personalities but all in all, not that memorable.
Dietland by Sarai Walker – I thought this one was going to be a beach read too. Wow was I wrong. This was one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Big Girl by Kelsey Miller – Miller has a funny, engaging voice that makes you want to hang out with her. It’s not the deepest book ever written on the very fraught topic of female body image, but I rooted for her wholeheartedly as she overcame the pressure to diet and found happiness and self-acceptance.
Unbelievable by Katy Tur – I couldn’t finish this one, reading about the abuse this woman suffered on the campaign trail made me too angry, for her and for our country.
Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco – You’d imagine that someone who was in Mastromonaco’s position (Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Operations) probably has a lot of interesting stories. Too bad she decided to include so few of them in this book, which I found to be generally gossipy and shallow.
A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding – Scary and infuriating, despite a dramatic style that sometimes verged on the portentous. Not like the world needed more evidence that Putin and his government are a gang of criminal thugs but this is a worthwhile addition to the pile.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie – As with the Neapolitan Novels, I feel like I was the last person in the world to read this book, and now that I’ve read it, I don’t know what the fuss was about. I kept waiting for something to happen, for some sort of story arc, and it never came. It’s more about themes than plot, but perhaps because I’m neither black nor an immigrant, I didn’t much relate to the themes, and I found the protagonist to be chilly and unlikable. Oh well.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir – Considering my interests (I wrote my college thesis on the dissolution of the monasteries) I can’t believe it took me until 2018 to read this book. Really well-written and well-researched.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks – Some interesting and heartbreaking stories in here but my brain tends to glaze over whenever anyone gets deep into the weeds about science, and this was no exception. Perhaps Oliver Saks should have studied my brain to see why that is!
Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff – Thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly disposable trash that nonetheless managed to spark some important conversations about the President’s mental health. It’s a weird time to be alive.
Red Famine by Anne Applebaum – Wow, the 20th century was grim. It’s hard to fathom the intentional starvation of millions in the service of an ideological cause. It also helps me better understand why many people who grew up in Soviet Russia became very rightwing; it’s hard to divorce the utopian ideals of Communism from the actual horror it wreaked.
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe – I wrote a whole post about this one!
So anyway, here’s a cake. (I always like writing that!) I made this for a brunch with friends. We only ate about half of it so two days later, I brought it the rest to a family gathering. Despite almost being forced to throw it out by some fascistic security guards at the Big Apple Circus, it made it to my parents’ house safely, and everyone said it was delicious even though it was two days old. Three people even asked me for the recipe! How did it taste? Do you like the taste of baked donuts? If so, you will like this cake. Plus, it looks really nice and apparently can feed quite a crowd. And it has “donut” in the name so you can technically serve in on Hanukkah!
Old-Fashioned Doughnut Bundt Cake
From the New York Times
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 1 cup/225 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 1/2 cup/115 grams, melted, for finishing
- 1 ½ cups/300 grams plus 2/3 cup/135 grams granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 ½ cups/445 grams all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 cup/240 milliliters buttermilk
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a 10- or 12-cup Bundt pan, taking care to get into all the grooves of the pan.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream 1 cup/225 grams room-temperature butter and 1 1/2 cups/300 grams sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until well incorporated, scraping the mixing bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla and mix to combine.
- In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda and salt to combine. Add half of the flour mixture to the mixer and mix on low speed until incorporated. With the mixer running, add the buttermilk in a slow, steady stream and mix until combined. Add the remaining flour and mix until fully incorporated. Scrape the bowl well to be sure the batter is well combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and spread evenly. Tap the pan heavily on the counter a few times to help even out the batter and remove air pockets. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean, 45 to 55 minutes.
- Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 to 20 minutes, then flip the pan onto a cooling rack set inside a baking sheet. Tap the pan heavily onto the rack. The cake should easily release. If it doesn’t, use a small offset spatula to gently run around the edges of the pan to help release, then tap it again onto the rack.
- In a small bowl, mix the remaining 2/3 cup/135 grams sugar with the cinnamon to combine. Brush the warm cake all over with melted butter, then spoon cinnamon sugar over the cake. Brush any bare areas with the melted butter and reuse any cinnamon sugar that falls onto the baking sheet below the rack, using your hands to gently press it into the surface of the cake to help it stick. The idea is to get the cake fully coated all over with cinnamon sugar. Let the cake cool completely before serving.