Tea, Cotton, Lemon Coconut Cake, and Flying Dogs

Dear Reader:

It has been hot up here – but pretty much seasonably so, mid-80s and such.  How’s the weather where you are?

553) Village Affairs by Miss Read (hard copy, library) 

I’ve blogged about Miss Read’s Thrush Green books, but she also wrote the Fairacre series about a school teacher named Miss Read (which was also her writing pseudonym).  This teacher taught at the tiny Fairacre School – one of just two teachers.  It is never completely clear when her stories are set, but I think this one would be 1950s or 60s.

The story’s tension mostly revolves around school board decisions about whether or not to retain the school.  England is in a budgetary crunch and finding it hard to justify keeping a school of just 30 students and 2 teachers going.  But the school is the center of the village and its inhabits are crushed by the prospect.

Meanwhile, Miss Read tries to help a local, Minnie, keep body and soul together in the face of a violent, worthless husband and the Coggs’ patriarch is thieving again.  As always, Miss Read (the author) entertains and charms with her village vignettes. And people drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of nice cakes together.

I grew up in a village of 500 with a K-12 village school in my back yard (our grades typically had one class each of about 30 students).  Of course, the village school I went to was itself the result of an earlier consolidation (it was “Gilbertsville Central School”) of even tinier schools.  In the 1980s, my school was combined with another neighboring school.  The new school is probably better for the kids – I read the newsletter sometimes, and it is clear that the children have more resources, more specialized classes, and so on.  But our tiny school was in the dead middle of the village and life very much revolved around it – soccer and basketball games, Christmas and spring concerts, and school plays were the major events in the town.  Since the school left (it is only two miles away, but in a small village, this makes a big difference) the village has lost its heart.  So, I felt for the Fairacre residents battling for their school and explicitly asking if policymakers understand the implications for village life of losing the school.

528) The Path to Power (Volume 1 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson) by Robert Caro (hard copy, library)

If you live in the US, you’ve likely been hearing a lot about Robert Caro’s latest volume in this series – The Passage of Power – which is fourth in a planned five volume series.  This latest book covers the time of Lyndon’s serving as President Kennedy’s vice president and runs until just shortly after his ascent to the presidency, in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated.  My library has this highly rated book, but it also has the earliest two volumes, so I thought it made more sense to start at the beginning.

Mind you, these are commitments -The Path to Power is 800 pages long!  And Johnson is a somewhat obscure president – he’s not a Lincoln or Washington, FDR or Kennedy.  But I wanted to read these books to understand Johnson (who was the first president I remember since he was in office 1963-1968 and I was born in 1961).  I also wanted to understand American 21st Century history and, since Johnson was born in 1908 and died in the 1970s, I thought this would be a great entree into it – and it turns out this is one of Caro’s goals – using Johnson to tell US history of the time.

Johnson was a very controversial president, he accelerated the Vietnam War and lied about what was going on, but he also passed our greatest Civil Rights Acts finally protecting the rights of African Americans and he was famous for his “Great Society” policies that aimed to eliminate poverty.

As we learn in The Path to Power, Johnson grew up, initially, as a privileged child in the very poor, cotton-growing, Texas Hill Country whose family dove, overnight, into very visible poverty when his father’s bad decisions ruined the family.  His father was a Texas state legislator while Johnson was a child and Johnson took after him, having the height (6’4″), dark eyes and hair, pale skin, and deep ambition of this side of the family.

The very public humiliation of his family’s fall from grace burned deep within him a desire to be somebody and a bottomless drive to achieve.  But he was also a loudmouthed charmer who had to hold the floor in the midst of his equals or those “below” him while obsequiously soliciting the support and patronage of those more wealthy and/or powerful.  But he was also a political genius with the ability to think brilliantly about strategy over, not just days and months, but years and decades, and he changed the face of American politics.

Caro show us how he developed – how he was affected by those around him, what he did about it, how he created his life and career.  This first book was published in 1982, not quite ten years after Johnson died.  And he based the book on EXTENSIVE interviews with residents of the town in which Johnson grew up, those who taught him in school and university, his friends, his colleagues, his employees.  Since the publication of this first book, Caro has published one book every 10 years (he says the last book should be published in 4-5 years – Caro is 76 so we’re waiting with bated breath, I hope he looks both ways before crossing New York City streets!).  No one will ever equal or surpass this biography.

And the thing is, it is brilliantly written!  And fascinating.  Again, Johnson is not a prominent president, in many ways, but he was such a political phenom, and, Caro argues, a pivotal president who changed American culture for decades after.  As I read the hundreds and hundreds of pages, I tried to figure out what made the book so good.  Mostly, I don’t know, but one cause is that Caro sets up a puzzle that he then solves later in the book.  For instance, Johnson came into the United States House of Representatives in the late 1930s a lowly junior congressman.  He had committee membership on a committee of which he was never going to be a leader.  How was he going to gain power in such a situation?  It seemed impossible.  But then he shows how, in just three weeks, Johnson stepped in to avert the changing over of the House to the Republican party and helped Franklin Roosevelt get re-elected.  This passage alone is riveting and powerful.  Another aspect that makes it compelling is that Johnson was such a complicated man – obnoxious and yet, one of the most, in many ways, humanitarian presidents we’ve had.  And he wielded enormous power wherever he went.  Amazing book!  I’m on to the next in the series.

556) Dog is my Co-pilot: Rescue Tales of Flying Dogs, Second Chances, and the Hero who Might Live Next Door by Patrick Regan (kindle) #65

This book was on sale at Amazon and I had to have it.  And I read it in a few hours with tears in my eyes.  It is a series of stories about the animals (mostly dogs) that Pilots ‘n Paws, a volunteer group of small plane pilots, rescued by moving them to where they needed to go – their next rescue organization or their new adoptive family.  While the US has done a lot, through encouragement of spay-neuter practices, to reduce our population of unwanted dogs, we still have millions of dogs given up every year.  They tend to get given up in the poorer, more rural American South and tend to be more adoptable in more northern states and/or urban areas. And somehow they have to travel the hundreds of miles between the regions to find a new home.

Over time, with the advent of the internet, an “underground highway” network of rescuers has sprung up, often chaining dogs who need to get somewhere from driver to driver, sometimes multiple volunteer drivers in one day.  A few years ago, a small plane owner passionate about flying and dogs, learned of this network and their challenges getting animals driven long distance, sometimes thousands of miles.  And he realized that there were lots of “general aviation” (non-airline) pilots out there looking for excuses to fly who would surely love to help out and have a reason to get their planes out.

And he was right.  Over a few years, an extensive network of volunteer pilots evolved, working with rescue groups, sometimes on little notice, to get animals from here to there.  The book describes this history, but it is mostly made up of about forty short tales of these animals’ travels.  We read the story of the abandoned dobermans who started it all, a near-death boxer, Chance, starved by a husband in retaliation at his ex-wife, and Angel, a sick Labrador retriever, rescued minutes from euthanasia.  I loved these stories of volunteers willing to put out their time and the animals lucky enough to get a second chance.  If you are looking for an enjoyable read of this type, this book is highly recommended.

Lemon Coconut Cake

I don’t often make desserts, much less fancy ones – I live solo and don’t want to eat a pan of brownies.  But I recently had a birthday and I like to get a cake for that – usually, I buy one but that means I have to settle for whatever the bakery is selling – just plain vanilla or chocolate, but this time I decided to make one that I would really like.

So, this is it – a Lemon Coconut cake from the Moosewood dessert cookbook.  It is made up of mildly coconut-flavored layers, lemon curd in between, a frosting of whipped cream and lemon curd, and toasted coconut on top.  And it is delicious!

I learned that it is really important to let the curd and the whipped cream get really cold before adding them to the layers.  I didn’t wait quite long enough and it didn’t stick as well as it could.  But a night in the fridge for the cake and the leftover frosting and it firmed up nicely and I was able to pretty the cake up a bit from this initial photo taken right after my first frosting (the coverage in imperfect).  What a cake!  I’ve never made lemon curd before, it was so tasty!

My youngest dog got a few licks in when my back was turned, but no matter, she just got some frosting and I had extra, so I replaced it.  (and miss counter surfer got a raw ear of corn tonight, for not very long, it was just missing a few kernels – need to train “off” this behavior)

Happy reading, Ruby!



  1. Well, the weather where I am has cooled off to the high 80’s, so that was a nice relief. I would also like to volunteer to be a cake taster for you – that looks SO good 🙂
    Miss Read sounds like an interesting character and this is a book that will get added to my list. The dog book sounds like it would make me rethink my three dog limit, so I ought not to read it 🙂

  2. The cake looks great. It is the rainy season here in Manila so we get Heavy monsoon style rains, high temp is maybe 92, low 80.


  1. The List « A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books

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