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Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > 2017 > December

My Favorite Books of the Year

When I launched this web page it was an exploration. As an unknown author myself, I began to notice how many really good books were published with very little attention. Many of them were by women. I also began to notice how many really famous women writers got their publishing start (which is different from starting to write) at a relatively advanced age. For all the wunderkind, there are many more writers for whom life experience forms the building blocks of a literary career.

So I began to review books by relatively unknown women. As a way to help this community,
and as a way to help my own writing. Writers are always avid readers.

Here are some of my favorite books from 2017, reviewed in these pages:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Reviewed in August, this book tells the story of the return of a Texan white child from her Kiowa captors from the point of view of the middle aged retired army officer who’s tasked with returning her to her family. Among the fascinations of this book is the author’s choice of point of view. By choosing that of a well-traveled adult who has experienced war and the rapid changes inflicted on the so-called Wild West, Jiles allows the reader to reflect on much more than the child’s experience.

Also in August, I reviewed The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson. In the summers of 1888 and 1889, the Lintvayov family, doctors, teachers, devoted to one another, rented out a guest cottage on their prosperous Ukrainian farm to the Chekhov family. One of the daughters, Zinaida, blinded by a brain tumor, fell in love with Anton Chekhov, and their daily conversations, recorded in Zinaida’s fictional diary, become the linchpin of the novel.

Addressing the translator’s difficulty of getting across meaning through the barrier of time and language, and the publisher’s task to disseminate the writer’s vision, this book is also an elegy for a moment in history, for a slower, more natural world, for the need for connection, for literature as the pathway to understanding our fellow human beings.

Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King. The ancient world happens to be a nerdy fascination of mine. I even have a book of recipes from imperial Rome. So it was with delight that I picked up Feast of Sorrow, a debut novel by Crystal King. King includes recipes (flamingo tongues anyone?) in this story of Thrasius, the celebrity chef of Marcus Gavius Apicius. A slave to the patrician Apicius, it could have been Thrasius who actually wrote the famous first cookbook. Reviewed in May.

My own literary highlight of the year was of course, the publication of my novel Lipstick on the Strawberry, in July. I’m so grateful for all the positive reviews and comments! On to the next book in 2018.

Wishing everyone a happy New Year!

The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book

By Carolyn Wyman
The Countryman Press, 2014

Camilla, my caterer heroine in my novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, loves to bake. So do I, and have been baking up a storm for the holidays.

However, squeezing artificially colored frosting over reindeer shaped cookies is not my thing. For gifts and just for eating at home, I prefer something easier to make and universally popular. What could be simpler than chocolate chip cookies? As it happens, the popular sweet “biscuit” (as English Camilla likes to call them), originated in her adopted home, Massachusetts, 79 years ago. Now Massachusetts has adopted this yummy treat as its “state cookie.”

I learned this from Carolyn Wyman’s The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book. It’s a book I turn to now when I need a particular variation on the theme. For example, her freeze-ahead dough bakes up beautifully when thawed. And she’s figured out how to approximate Mrs. Field’s huge cookies with macadamia nuts. That recipe is a closely held corporate secret.

But back to the original chocolate chip cookie.

Credit for the cookie and its name goes to a woman named Ruth Graves Wakefield. She bought the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, in 1930, and turned it into a popular eating establishment. The Nestle company has been associated with the cookie since its beginning. In one variation of the origin story, Mrs. Wakefield, experimenting with a cookie recipe, found to her surprise that the new Nestle chocolate chips did not melt into the batter but retained their shape. In another story, bars of Nestle chocolate held on a counter above the mixer in the kitchen fell into the batter, and the cook decided to bake the batter rather than remove the chips. The resulting sweet cookie, made with a mix of brown and white sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla, with its little triangular bits of chocolate poking through, became a favorite.

All that became a cute marketing story for Nestle, but some have questioned the “accidental
cookie” theory. After all, Mrs. Wakefield was a trained dietician and a restaurant owner.

Apparently she did receive as a gift a new kind of semi-sweet chocolate bar from Nestle, which
she incorporated into the cookie. But it seems likely to me her experimentation was as deliberate as the manufacturer’s. The official version peddles the myth that women invent things by accident rather than by design and therefore don’t deserve fair payment for their work. If you think about it, Mrs. Wakefield’s invention should have brought her a handsome share of Nestle’s chocolate chip profits. But while her recipe is on every package of the chips, Ruth Wakefield sold the rights to use her recipe to Toll House for a dollar. Some say she received for her efforts a lifetime of free chocolate. Or maybe that’s just another story. According to Carolyn Wyman, Mrs. Wakefield’s family remains mum about the financial arrangement between her and Nestle.

In The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book, the author suggests that the myths about the cookie’s “accidental” creation say more about us than about Nestle or the enterprising Ruth Wakefield.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. Notice how that phrase implies that creation is a woman’s business. But do women- especially in business – get the credit they deserve for invention?