Spotlight Review: BAD FEMINIST by Roxane Gay

March 29, 2022


From the publisher:

A collection of essays spanning politics, criticism, and feminism from one of the most-watched cultural observers of her generation.

In these funny and insightful essays, Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django in Chains) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better, coming from one of our most interesting and important cultural critics.

New York Times Bestseller • Best Book of the Year: NPR • Boston Globe • Newsweek • Time Out New York • • Miami Herald • Book Riot • Buzz Feed • Globe and Mail (Toronto) • The Root • Shelf Awareness

I’m a long time admirer of Roxane Gay, but this is the first book of hers that I read. Over the years I’ve read many of her essays in various publications like New York Magazine, VQR, The New York Times, and many more. This book is part of the Social Impact Book Series that I facilitate at Lynn University. The essays are divided into five parts: Me; Gender & Sexuality; Race & Entertainment; Politics, Gender & Race; and Back to Me.

It was originally published in 2014, and I’m sorry to say there is one essay about Bill Cosby that has not held up. In fact, Gay wrote about Cosby later on, updating her position in The Empty Chair & 35 Women Standing Up to Bill Cosby, Rapist. Then again, most of us loved Bill Cosby until his actions forced us into hating him.

Other essays include the eponymous “Bad Feminist,” in which she says, “The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman.” She describes herself as “a mess of contradictions” and discusses the dichotomy of thinking herself a feminist yet listening to rap music that degrades women, knowing nothing about cars, hating how women are held to impossible beauty standards yet being a voracious Vogue reader. I think most women struggle with these and other dichotomies as well, and I certainly can relate.

In this collection, Gay explores what it means to be a woman in America in this century. She explores her own imperfections, thus shining the light on our own and helping us understand that we are all imperfect. Her voice is always engaging and I found myself reading just one more and then one more after that. At times funny and sad and everything in between, Gay takes us on her very personal journey yet somehow I found it very relatable, and that is no easy feat. An easy book to pick up and a bit tougher to put down, this is a collection that is worth seeking out.

NOTE: Roxane Gay Books is a new imprint of Grove Atlantic announced in May. 2021 and will “focus on underrepresented fiction, nonfiction and memoir writers, with or without agents.” (NYT) I am not aware of any books that have been published yet.

3/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

BAD FEMINIST by Roxane Gay. Harper Perennial; 1st edition (August 5, 2014). ISBN: 978-0062282712. 336p.




STOLEN by Katariina Rosenblatt & Cecil Murphey

February 11, 2022

The True Story of a Sex Trafficking Survivor

From the publisher:

Sex trafficking is currently a hot news topic, but it is not a new problem or just a problem in “other” countries. Every year, an estimated 300,000 American children are at risk of being lured into the sex trade, some as young as eight years old. It is thought that up to 90 percent of victims are never rescued.

Stolen is the true story of one survivor who escaped–more than once. First recruited while staying with her family at a hotel in Miami Beach, Katariina Rosenblatt was already a lonely and abused young girl who was yearning to be loved. She fell into the hands of a confident young woman who pretended friendship but slowly lured her into a child prostitution ring. For years afterward, a cycle of false friendship, threats, drugs, and violence kept her trapped.

As Kat shares her harrowing experiences, readers will quickly realize the frightening truth that these terrible things could have happened to any child–a neighbor, a niece, a friend, a sister, a daughter. But beyond that, they will see that there is real hope for the victims of sex trafficking. Stolen is more than a warning. It is a celebration of survival that will inspire.

This was one of the worst books I’ve ever read. What should have been an important message about sex trafficking in the U.S. is instead an homage to Christianity. The only reason I finished it was because I was asked to do a book talk/discussion for the Social Impact Series at Lynn University, where I work. The Impact Series addresses various topics each month, and part of the series is a book discussion on a book relevant to that topic. The January topic was Sex Trafficking, and this book was selected because the author is local and it was suggested she might be available to participate. It was then decided that we don’t get enough of a turnout to warrant inviting the author, so that was that and I was stuck reading this book.

This book is Kat’s story. She did an interview with CNN several years ago for a series they did on sex trafficking in the US: Watching this short video is preferable to reading this book.

When people think of sex trafficking, they often think of it as something that happens to other people. We think it can’t possibly happen in our town or neighborhood; it’s a problem in big cities or across the border or internationally. We want to feel that the young people we know – our children, our friends’ children, the kids in our neighborhood – can’t possibly be at risk. We are wrong.

It is partially true that sex trafficking does occur across our borders and internationally, but it also occurs here in these United States. Every day. Ohio leads the nation in sex trafficking, followed by Florida, where I live and where this book is set.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is Katariina Rosenblatt’s personal story–her abuse, how her loneliness attracted a recruiter in the hotel she lived in, and how she was groomed step-by-step into slavery by traffickers, her escape and recapture numerous times. In the second part, Kat had escaped and is married, but is in an abusive marriage. The third part of the book deals with how she got involved in saving children from traffickers. She has her own foundation which is promoted heavily here.

The other major theme in this book is an exploration of Kat’s Christianity. The author talks about accepting Christ as her Savior at a Billy Graham crusade when she was 12 years old, a year before the first time she was trafficked. Burned into her mind and heart from that night was Mr. Graham saying, “Remember this: God will never leave you or forsake you.” This was repeated throughout the book, usually when she did not know what to do or where to turn. The Church plays an important role in her life, but lead me to question some of what she talks about.

I had some issues, for instance, with these quotes:

“They’re less likely to go back if people like us can help them break that invisible bondage and provide a mentoring relationship with a safe, Christian adult.”

To me, this sounds like it is useless to help if that safe mentor isn’t a Christian. That’s just some flat out bullshit.

“When I first began visiting strip clubs, I went as part of a group. One night, eight girls came to the Lord through our efforts. That night God seemed to have infiltrated the whole building with his love. We had gone out to the floor and talked with the manager, and we had the privilege of leading him to Jesus Christ while a girl was dancing. We also gave tracts to most of the customers, and they accepted them. Tears flowed as Jesus broke off the shackles of bondage from all sorts of people, from the managers to the girls and even to some of their clientele.”

This was way over the top to me. Not every woman who works in a strip club wants to be “saved” nor do the customers. I found this bizarre.

A bigger problem, however, is her underlying belief that homosexuality is something that can be prayed away. In the chapter “Wedded Bliss”, she talks about her husband’s stepsister:

“The woman was a lesbian, and her girlfriend was involved in Santeria, a religion that is a mixture of African and Caribbean witchcraft and Roman Catholicism…Joel & I prayed regularly for them … ‘I know you’ve been praying for me. Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m not in that lifestyle anymore.'”

Yep, Kat prayed away the gay. Ugh.

The writing is quite simple and often repetitive. This book was not reviewed by any authoritative journal or newspaper. I did find a “review”, and I use the term loosely, in a Christian women’s magazine that praised her finding Jesus rather than critiquing the book. Most of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads were from Christian women who were given a free copy of the book for review from the Christian publisher. ‘Nuff said.

2/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

STOLEN by Katariina Rosenblatt & Cecil Murphey. Revell; First Edition (October 7, 2014). ISBN: 978-0800723453. 240p.




MY TIME AMONG THE WHITES by Jennine Capó Crucet

October 7, 2021

Notes from an Unfinished Education

From the author of Make Your Home Among Strangers, essays on being an “accidental” American―an incisive look at the edges of identity for a woman of color in a society centered on whiteness

In this sharp and candid collection of essays, critically acclaimed writer and first-generation American Jennine Capó Crucet explores the condition of finding herself a stranger in the country where she was born. Raised in Miami and the daughter of Cuban refugees, Crucet examines the political and personal contours of American identity and the physical places where those contours find themselves smashed: be it a rodeo town in Nebraska, a university campus in upstate New York, or Disney World in Florida. Crucet illuminates how she came to see her exclusion from aspects of the theoretical American Dream, despite her family’s attempts to fit in with white American culture―beginning with their ill-fated plan to name her after the winner of the Miss America pageant.

In prose that is both fearless and slyly humorous, My Time Among the Whites examines the sometimes hopeful, sometimes deeply flawed ways in which many Americans have learned to adapt, exist, and―in the face of all signals saying otherwise―perhaps even thrive in a country that never imagined them here.

This memoir is a collection of essays and is remarkable reading. Crucet is the American born daughter of Cuban refugees, and grew up in Hialeah, a Miami haven for Cuban families. In this book, she talks about everything from moving to Nebraska to Walt Disney World to how she was named after a Miss USA – sort of. What drew me to this book was the immigrant experience being told first hand.

Crucet is the first person in her family to go to college, and she writes about that experience and the difficulties she had because she had no guidance. She applied to only two colleges, because no one told her you could get application fees waived and they were steep. She received a full ride to the University of Florida, no easy feat, but instead, she selected a school based on a brochure a secretary was throwing away. The school that looked so appealing was Cornell University, and she was accepted. She did receive financial aid, but not the free ride she could have had at UF. She decided, along with her family, that Cornell was the best place for her, even though it was a struggle.

Struggle is at the heart of the book. Crucet is Latinx, a light skinned brown person who often passes as white, living in a country where the last president called Mexicans rapists and murderers. I loved the review in the Los Angeles Review of Books; they described this book as “post-Trump Latinx literature.” The bigotry she has to deal with is at times subtle, and other times overt, but it is always there, a backdrop to every essay in this collection. This is a worthwhile read, especially now when right-wing racist groups have gained national attention. It is sometimes painful reading, sometimes funny, but always engaging, making this a difficult but excellent read.

NOTE: I am facilitating a discussion of this book at Lynn University on Friday, 10/8/2021 at noon, with college students and faculty. I am especially looking forward to hearing what the students have to say. This discussion is part of the Impact Series: in collaboration with Student Affairs and the Lynn Library, Project Civitas‘ Impact Series is a multi-departmental collaboration that seeks to immerse students, faculty and staff in holistic conversations about issues of social justice. Register here for the book discussion:

10/2021 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

MY TIME AMONG THE WHITES by Jennine Capó Crucet. Picador (September 3, 2019). ISBN:‎ 978-1250299437. 208 pages.







April 23, 2021

A Biography of the Reconstruction Era President

From the publisher:

How do you remove an unpopular president from office?

On February 24, 1868, members of the United States House of Representatives voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson on thirteen separate charges of having committed high crimes and misdemeanors against the government and the people.

In this impressive biography, Noel B. Gerson examines how these extraordinary events came about, the circumstances leading up to it, and the aftermath of a trial that was unique in the history of the country.

Born into poverty and with no formal education, Johnson rose to prominence through perseverance and hard work. Entering politics, he became an adept stump speaker, championing the common man and vilifying the plantation aristocracy. Nominally a Democrat, who advocated free homesteads and education for all, he was soon to discover that not all agreed with his desire to see the nation reunited under the Constitution, as it had been before the Civil War.

Sworn in as seventeenth President of the United States following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Johnson faced the enormous task of presiding over the tumultuous first years of Reconstruction, a task made harder by his enemies, notably radical Republicans Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and Edwin Stanton, who turned the tide of support against him and were instrumental in the campaign to disgrace Johnson and drive him from office.

By utilizing a wealth of primary sources, including quoted speeches, letters and press articles, Gerson masterfully portrays a sympathetic national figure devoted to his country and the Constitution, who escaped conviction by a single vote and went on to achieve a level of popularity he had never before known.

The Trial of Andrew Johnson is an ideal read for those who wish to find out more about the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson and his fight for vindication against the radical Republicans in the United States Congress.

Noel B. Gerson was a prodigious author of many books, the majority of which were historical. He was an unabashed patriot with a great deal of his books concerned with U.S. history.  Among his better known works are “55 Days at Peking,” the “Naked Maja,” and the “Swamp Fox.”

The “Trial of Andrew Johnson” was first published in 1977 and brings to light a figure previously not greatly touched upon in American history. Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the U.S. and as the vice president during Abraham Lincoln’s term ascended to the office when Mr. Lincoln was assassinated.      

Like Lincoln before him, Johnson came from a very poor family and lifted himself up by his own bootstraps, teaching himself how to read and write. He got into politics and made a stump speaker out of himself. Rising through a progression of offices for his home state of Tennessee he was selected by Lincoln to run as his vice president and held that office during the tumultuous years of the Civil war and until elevated to the presidency by Lincoln’s assassination.      

After the cessation of hostilities Johnson championed the reentrance of those states that had seceded as part of the Confederacy with no penalty providing that affidavits of loyalty be signed by residents and elected officials as conditions of acceptance back into the union. He faced a large group of members of Congress that wanted to lay blame for the war and charge reparations to the seceding states. When Johnson could not be moved from his position the never before use of impeachment with an ensuing trial and forced removal from office was started by those that demanded blame be placed on the recalcitrant states.     

Gerson’s forte was the writing of historical fact in a manner that made reading his books almost a work of enjoying a good novel while learning about the area the author was touching upon. It would be interesting to read again or for the first time those books that are reissued.  His writing is not dated and would appeal to all that enjoy a good historical book.

4/2021 Paul Lane

THE TRIAL OF ANDREW JOHNSON by Noel B. Gerson. Sapere Books (March 8, 2021). ISBN: 978-1800551015. 138 pages.






SHIT, ACTUALLY by Lindy West

December 25, 2020

The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema

From the publisher:

One of the “Best Books of 2020” by NPR’s Book Concierge

**Your Favorite Movies, Re-Watched**
New York Times opinion writer and bestselling author Lindy West was once the in-house movie critic for Seattle’s alternative newsweekly The Stranger, where she covered film with brutal honesty and giddy irreverence. In Shit, Actually, Lindy returns to those roots, re-examining beloved and iconic movies from the past 40 years with an eye toward the big questions of our time: Is Twilight the horniest movie in history? Why do the zebras in The Lion King trust Mufasa-WHO IS A LION-to look out for their best interests? Why did anyone bother making any more movies after The Fugitive achieved perfection? And, my god, why don’t any of the women in Love, Actually ever fucking talk?!?!

From Forrest Gump, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Bad Boys II, to Face/Off, Top Gun, and The Notebook, Lindy combines her razor-sharp wit and trademark humor with a genuine adoration for nostalgic trash to shed new critical light on some of our defining cultural touchstones-the stories we’ve long been telling ourselves about who we are. At once outrageously funny and piercingly incisive, Shit, Actually reminds us to pause and ask, “How does this movie hold up?”, all while teaching us how to laugh at the things we love without ever letting them or ourselves off the hook.

Shit, Actually is a love letter and a break-up note all in one: to the films that shaped us and the ones that ruined us. More often than not, Lindy finds, they’re one and the same.

Most people who know me never give me books.. Writers do. Publicists do. But most people know that I get tons of books and I am rarely in need of anything, and they figure I probably have what they want to give me anyway. My immediate family and a few of my closest friends give me books because they know I love books, and as they are coming from people who know me so well, they are usually fairly confident I’ll like the books they give me. My husband brought me back a beautiful book of photographs of Ireland and a book of Irish poetry when he was over there for work. I loved both of those books. Friends have given me cookbooks, and those I love. My son gave me a book called Haikus for Jews that was just adorable and I loved it.

I am telling you all this because my boss, who I have grown very close to through working with such an amazing woman, but especially during this pandemic, gave me a book. This book, by Lindy West. I was shocked. This just doesn’t happen to me! I took it home and immediately started reading. I was laughing out loud within the first couple of pages. This is some funny shit, actually.

West riffs on her perceptions of very popular movies. The title of the book comes from her essay on the film Love, Actually, which is one of my favorite Christmas films, but as much as I love it her interpretation had me in hysterics. It was amazing. She sets the standard with the first chapter entitled, “The Fugitive is the Only Good Movie.” She explains why and although I don’t agree with her analysis, she judges the rest of the films in the book by her unique rating system. For instance, Love, Actually rates 0/10 DVDs of The Fugitive. The essay on the film Twilight called “Never Boring, Always Horny” rated 5/10 DVDs of The Fugitive.

I absolutely loved her take on Harry Potter, entitled “Harry Plot Hole”. She proceeds to point out holes in the story that are so big you could drive a truck through them, as well as smaller foibles. Harry Potter was a big part of our lives for many years. The first book came out when my daughter, Ariel, was five years old. I was working for Borders and no one really knew anything about it, but we got a bunch of copies so I brought one home for her. We read it together, taking turns reading each night, and it took us most of the summer to read it. She went on to reread it several times, and read every book in the series as it came out. Borders did big book release parties at midnight on sale day and Ariel came to all of them, preferring to take her book and start reading over playing wizard games. So when I read this essay, I knew Ariel had to read it, and she just loved it. One of her favorite parts was when West pointed out that the wizards must be Christian because they celebrate Christmas!

Every essay is a gem. I love books like this, especially around the holidays, when not everyone has a lot of time to sit and read. You can pick up the book and read any of the essays, and just know you will be laughing. I had to stop reading while watching football because I knew I was disturbing my husband, not that he would ever say anything. But I felt guilty so only read during commercial breaks and halftime. I also hadn’t seen all of the movies she discusses, like Face/Off and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but I’d heard enough about those films to understand where she was coming from. If you want a book to just escape into for brief periods of time, and need a little more joy in your life this holiday season, this is your book. I loved it. Apparently, I’m in good company:

NPR’s Book Concierge, “Best Books of 2020” (Staff Picks; Funny Stuff; No Biz Like Show Biz; Short Stories, Essays & Poetry)

Kobo, “Top Nonfiction Titles of 2020”, “Top 20 Ebooks of 2020”

The Buzz Magazine, “Best nonfiction books of 2020”

BookRiot, “Best Audiobooks for Nonfiction November” and Book Recommendations for October 2020″Fortune, “Five New Books to Read in October”

BookTribe, “Editors’ pick for October’s best audiobooks”

LitHub, “14 New Books to Treat Yourself To”

SeattleMet, “11 Localish Books to Read This Autumn”

Up News Info, “5 new books to read in October”

Writers’ Bone, “A book that should be on your radar”

TBR, ETC. “New Books for the Week!”

New York Times, Holiday Gift Guide

Bustle, Holiday Gift Guide

The Globe and Mail, Holiday Gift Guide

Finally, let me leave you with this snippet of a review: “Queen of keenly observed, hilariously rendered cultural criticism, West offers this delicious distraction from reality….a cathartic, joyful exploration of entertainment….in true West form she reads like your smartest, funniest, and warmest friend. A perfect blend of substance, escapism, and laughter – a gift from West to the rest of us.”―Booklist Review (starred)

12/2020 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

SHIT, ACTUALLY by Lindy West. Hachette Books (October 20, 2020). ISBN 978-0316449823. 272 pages.



JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson

October 27, 2020

JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson. One World; Reprint Edition (August 18, 2015). ISBN 978-0812984965. 368 pages.






WHITE FRAGILITY by Robin J. DiAngelo

September 23, 2020

WHITE FRAGILITY by Robin J. DiAngelo. Beacon Press; Reprint Edition (June 26, 2018). ISBN 978-0807047415. 192 pages.



WE FED AN ISLAND by Jose Andres

March 11, 2020


The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time

Also written by Richard Wolffe (co-author)

From the publisher:

The true story of how a group of chefs fed hundreds of thousands of hungry Americans after Hurricane Maria and touched the hearts of many more

Chef José Andrés arrived in Puerto Rico four days after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island. The economy was destroyed and for most people there was no clean water, no food, no power, no gas, and no way to communicate with the outside world.

Andrés addressed the humanitarian crisis the only way he knew how: by feeding people, one hot meal at a time. From serving sancocho with his friend José Enrique at Enrique’s ravaged restaurant in San Juan to eventually cooking 100,000 meals a day at more than a dozen kitchens across the island, Andrés and his team fed hundreds of thousands of people, including with massive paellas made to serve thousands of people alone. At the same time, they also confronted a crisis with deep roots, as well as the broken and wasteful system that helps keep some of the biggest charities and NGOs in business.

Based on Andrés’s insider’s take as well as on meetings, messages, and conversations he had while in Puerto Rico, We Fed an Island movingly describes how a network of community kitchens activated real change and tells an extraordinary story of hope in the face of disasters both natural and man-made, offering suggestions for how to address a crisis like this in the future.

Beyond that, a portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to the Chef Relief Network of World Central Kitchen for efforts in Puerto Rico and beyond.

This was an upsetting and eye-opening read. It is also an important one; we need to learn from our mistakes. Not that the current president would ever admit to making one. I’m not going to get too political here, but only because Chef Andres does it way better than I possibly could. In case you’ve forgotten, this book is about the rescue efforts after the devastating hurricane nearly destroyed the island of Puerto Rico.

Chef Andres pulls no punches and he names names. In fact, there is an entire chapter about the incompetence of the Red Cross alone. But they are not the only ones to blame. It all starts, and ends, with FEMA and the current administration.

“We knew that downed communications and electricity would make life difficult, but Puerto Rico was still the United States,” Andrés writes in his introduction. “It couldn’t be as bad as Haiti. We thought we’d be back by the end of the week. We were wrong.”

This book is not an easy read. A lot of it is upsetting. There are bright spots, of course, and Chef Andres’s big, sunny personality shines light on every page, even when he’s crying. And he cries a lot, with good reason. It is also not an easy read because it is chock full of statistics and numbers, which are not my forte. But even I was able to understand this nightmare and why the numbers were so important.

“Even the measures of food were confusing and FEMA had no way of understanding what was going on. The Red Cross talked about pounds of food, while others were talking about pallets. We preferred to talk about meals, which was actually what FEMA’s contracts specified. All these counts went into a big Excel spreadsheet that FEMA maintained and emailed every day. At the bottom of the spreadsheet, the total count of food was supposed to be there for everyone to see. Instead, the count was a calculating error because there was no standard unit of food that everyone used. If FEMA couldn’t manage a spreadsheet, how could it manage an emergency?”

I chose this book to read with my Foodie Book Club at Lynn University. I selected it for a few reasons, one being that the university takes seriously its role in educating students on the importance of civility and giving back. In a really big way. The other is a more personal tie. Chef Andres started his World Central Kitchen foundation after the earthquake in Haiti. Lynn University also suffered a devastating loss to that earthquake.

Honoring their legacy: 10 years since the Haiti earthquake

Ten years ago, 12 Lynn University students and two faculty members visited Haiti as part of a humanitarian course called Journey of Hope. They served the poor and brought hope to countless people with visits to a children’s handicapped home and an all-girls orphanage.

Following their service on Jan. 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince. It devastated the island and took the lives of four of the 12 Lynn students and both faculty members. The university remembers Stephanie Crispinelli, Britney Gengel, Christine Gianacaci, Courtney Hayes, Dr. Patrick Hartwick and Dr. Richard Bruno every year, at the moment the earthquake struck.

There is a beautiful memorial on campus, and the university remembers everyone they lost each year.

Since the World Central Kitchen finished their work in Puerto Rico, they have been very busy. Most recently they sent meals to the people on board the Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Japan. It is easy to understand why Chef Andres gets the accolades he does; he is an extraordinary man, and this book is just a small part of his legacy. Don’t miss it.

3/2020 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

WE FED AN ISLAND by Jose Andres.  Anthony Bourdain/Ecco; Reprint edition (September 3, 2019). ISBN 978-0062864499. 288.



NOTHING FANCY by Alison Roman

December 17, 2019

Unfussy Food for Having People Over

From the publisher:

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • It’s not entertaining. It’s having people over. The social media star, New York Times columnist, and author of Dining In helps you nail dinner with unfussy food, unstuffy vibes, and the permission to be imperfect.


Nothing Fancy delivers what those of hoping to up our dinner party game are looking for: It’s utterly current and distinctly doable.”—Eater

An unexpected weeknight meal with a neighbor or a weekend dinner party with fifteen of your closest friends—either way and everywhere in between, having people over is supposed to be fun, not stressful. This abundant collection of all-new recipes—heavy on the easy-to-execute vegetables and versatile grains, paying lots of close attention to crunchy, salty snacks, and with love for all the meats—is for gatherings big and small, any day of the week.

Alison Roman will give you the food your people want (think DIY martini bar, platters of tomatoes, pots of coconut-braised chicken and chickpeas, pans of lemony turmeric tea cake) plus the tips, sass, and confidence to pull it all off. With Nothing Fancy, any night of the week is worth celebrating.

I loved Alison Roman’s last cookbook, Dining In, so much that it was my choice for best cookbook of 2018. So I was really looking forward to this new one, and it does not disappoint. It has a definite audience this time out as it is a book all about entertaining. Now if you are thinking, I’d rather go out for dinner with friends than cook for them, this cookbook may change your mind!

She starts off with Snack Time, and there are lots of recipes divided by type: Dips, Spreads, and Stuff on Crackers; Fruits & Vegetables; Crunchy Things, Salty Things. That is followed by Salads, which are subdivided into Leafy Salads, Crunchy Salads, and the intriguing Kind-of Salads. Then come the sides, Vegetables and Grains, etc. Mains are next and include Meat, Fish, Pasta, etc. and the final chapter, appropriately titled, After Dinner.

Roman starts off the book with a page headed with “This is not a book about entertaining.” An interesting way to start! It is your introduction and Roman explains the how and why of her writing this particular book. She wants the takeaway to be: “Using your time and resources to feed people you care about is the ultimate expression of love…You got this.” Works for me. She then offers “three helpful things…ask for help; pick your battles; never apologize.” All excellent suggestions.

The ubiquitous grocery list comes next, what you should have on hand, but with an Alison Roman spin. Olive oil, sure, but her take on it? “not the fanciest or the cheapest; make sure it’s something you wouldn’t mind licking from a spoon.” She recommends kitchen equipment and pantry essentials as well.

Remember that first chapter, “snacks?” Roman warns not to confuse those with hors d’oeuvres or canapes. She says “snacks are breezy, snacks are fun.” Who doesn’t want breezy when you’ve invited people over? A most unusual snack that was tailor-made for my husband is Spicy Marinated Anchovies with Potato Chips. If you don’t love anchovies, and I don’t, then probably not for you. But definitely interesting! I like an anchovy in my Caesar dressing, and always use a couple in my Puttanesca sauce. Other snacks that I find intriguing are the Spicy Tomato-Marinated Feta, and the Crispy Haloumi with Honey and Pistachio. And even though I don’t love anchovies, “A Better Garlic Bread/Caramelized Garlic on Toast with Anchovies” is delicious.

I love recipes that can be made in advance, or better yet, ones that you forgot to make in advance, well, let’s make it now! Like “Overnight Focaccia, Tonight!” The salads are all super easy and very different, like “Lemony Watercress with Raw and Toasted Fennel,” “Iceberg with Pecorino, Crushed Olives, and Pickled Chile,” and “Celery and Fennel with Walnuts and Blue Cheese;” I’ll take all three, please! Not to mention the “Little Gems with Garlicky Lemon and Pistachio,” I am all over that. Those Little Gems are just adorable, and this makes a beautiful salad.

Sides are a wonderful assortment from “Mustardy Green Beans with Anchovyed Walnuts,” (there are those anchovies again); “Smashed Sweet Potatoes with Maple and Sour Cream,” which is as delicious as it is beautiful; and the irresistible “Baked Potato Bar.” You can use some of the “acceptable toppings include but are not limited to” sour cream and chives, but also Trout or Salmon roe, and finely chopped fresh dill. The “Frizzled Chickpeas and Onions with Feta and Oregano” will leave your guests talking for sure. Who knew the humble chickpea could be such a star!

The mains are well represented as well, and most have a do-ahead component. “One-Pot Chicken with Dates and Caramelized Lemon” includes a note that you can make this a few hours ahead, and keep in in a Dutch oven at room temperature. It can be reheated for 10-15 minutes if you want. Even better, the “Coconut-Braised Chicken with Chickpeas ad Lime” can be made up to 2 days ahead, and the “Harissa-Rubbed Pork Shoulder with White Beans and Chard” can be made 3 days ahead, and “Soy-Braised Brisket with Carmelized Honey and Garlic” can be made up to 5 days ahead. I can just feel her knocking down any argument about entertaining when you have days to prepare. Stress just flies out the window!

Desserts for Ms. Roman are optional, but she includes some interesting and beautiful ones to pick from. The cakes can mostly be baked a day or two ahead. “Crushed Blackberry and Cornmeal Cake” is not over the top sweet, if that is your preference, while the “Crispy Chocolate Cake with Hazelnut and Sour Cream” is made with Nutella – need I say more? The “Coconut Banana Cream Pudding” is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, with the pudding being made a day or two ahead and the whole thing assembled well before your guests arrive. Finally, the publisher has provided a couple of recipes if you’d like to try on the Amazon page, or if you have a subscription to the New York Times Cooking (worth it!) some of the recipes are there. Enjoy!

12/19 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

NOTHING FANCY by Alison Roman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 25, 2018). ISBN  978-0544816220. 400p.


ROSE’S BAKING BASICS by Rose Levy Beranbaum

December 14, 2019


100 Essential Recipes, with More Than 600 Step-by-Step Photos

From the publisher:

The ultimate baking book for everyone from best-selling author and “diva of desserts” Rose Levy Beranbaum

In this book of no-fuss recipes everyone should know, trusted baking expert Rose Levy Beranbaum guides you through every recipe for can’t-fail results—with a streamlined, simplified approach and more than 600 mouthwatering and instructive photos. Whether you’re a baking enthusiast or just want to whip up the occasional treat, you will be able to easily make perfect brownies, banana bread, holiday pies, birthday cakes, homemade bread, and more, with recipes including: Chocolate Sheet Cake with Ganache Frosting, Peanut Butter and Jelly Thumbprints, Beer Bread, Apple Walnut Muffins, Peach Cobbler, Milk Chocolate Caramel Tart, and more. Throughout, Rose shares her unique tips and methods for unlocking the secrets to the best flavors and foolproof results, for a treasury of essential recipes you’ll use forever.

I love Beranbaum’s cookbooks. I already owned The Cake Bible, The Pie & Pastry Bible, and The Bread Bible, and I treasure them. So why would I need this new cookbook? I’ll tell you – read on.

A while back, I started weeding my books. Weeding, for the non-librarians reading this, is library lingo for going through and discarding books that are too old, damaged, have out of date information, etc. In my case, I had to add other limitations, like cookbooks that didn’t have more than a couple of recipes that I use. I owned hundreds of cookbooks, including a collection of self-published cookbooks by various charitable organizations like the Junior League, churches, B’Nai Brith, and so on. I was running out of room, or rather I was definitely out of room, so I dedicated one bookcase just for cookbooks and whatever didn’t fit, had to go. That was about half of my cookbooks, so I had to be brutal. Why am I telling you all this? Because those Beranbaum cookbooks I already own are big and take up a lot of room on my cookbook bookshelves but I would not get rid of them. I ended up with a little over 200 cookbooks (please don’t judge!) and I can’t really add anything new unless something old goes. Discipline is required!

This new cookbook is only 400 pages, and yes, I said only. The Cake Bible, for example, clocks in at just under 600 pages and it only includes cake recipes and their acoutrements, like frosting. Also, this new book is on my Kindle. If you have never cooked from a digital cookbook, let me tell you that once you do, it is hard to go back to paper. For example, looking at the table of contents, everything is a link. You want cookies? Click on it. And the first thing I noticed about this TOC is that first thing on the page just says “recipe list” – yep, click on that and it takes you to a simple list of recipes divided by type: Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Tarts, Bread, and finally Toppings and Fillings. Then you just click away!

I don’t really know what Beranbaum’s background is, but I suspect she is something of a chemist. The biggest difference between cooking and baking is science. Everything that happens in baking is based on chemical reactions, and that’s why there is not a lot of room for experimentation. You can’t just swap out baking powder for yeast, the recipe won’t work. You can change up the flavor profile on most baked goods, but that’s about it. That’s why the kitchen world is divided into baking and cooking. People who like to freestyle it generally prefer cooking, where substituting ingredients may change the flavor but it won’t usually destroy a recipe.

I was curious about this new cookbook – would Beranbaum update her recipes? Yes indeedy! I’ve been making her apple pie with the cream cheese crust for just over 20 years. This newer version keeps the original recipe intact, but reorganizes the recipe.  One of my complaints about the Pie & Pastry Bible is the recipe for the apple pie, for example, is one of those recipes with recipes within it. So go to one place for the crust, another for the filling, and so on. I have it post-it notes stuck all over the place in that book. This new books has the entire recipe all together.

I also like the addition of “mise en place” to the recipes. This comes between the ingredients and the directions, and is very helpful in organizing the recipe. A lot of her recipes are complicated, but still very doable. Trust me, when I first started baking this pie I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. But there were enough instructions to give me the confidence to tackle it anyway. This newer version has simplified the process even further.

The publisher offered up the Bundt cake recipe so you can see what I’m talking about. Coming before the ingredients is the baking equipment you need. I love that it’s right up front, so I can dig that out before I go any further. In my teeny, tiny 9’x9′ kitchen with the horrible builder’s special cabinets (from 30 years ago!) that is no joke. It often takes crawling around with a flashlight to find the pans I don’t use that often.

Ingredients are offered by volume and weight, you get to decide. Then the mise en place, which I find incredibly helpful. Then directions are last, and explicit. There are also a ton of pictures. which I also find helpful.  You can see the finished Bundt cake, the slices taken from it, and there’s even a picture of the batter in the pan. You can see that this cake is loaded with apples!

There are not a ton of recipes here, but the ones included are all terrific and things you might actually want to make. Cookies include chocolate chip (of course!), brownies, thumbprint, shortbread, biscotti, and more. Your basic yellow, white, and chocolate cakes are here, both in sheet form and layers, chiffon and sponge cake, flourless cake, cheesecake, Whoopie pies, zucchini bread, and several different muffins. Pies include a variety of fruit pies, lemon meringue and it’s south Florida cousin, Key Lime, cream pies, cobblers, crisps, and more.

The bread chapter is a bit light, but includes biscuits, beer bread, no-knead bread, multigrain, pizza dough, a babka, and biga. Some people think biga is similar to sourdough starter, but Beranbaum calls it a dough enhancer rather than a starter, and several of her recipes benefit from it. The Toppings and Fillings chapter include buttercream, several kinds of ganache, glazes, whipped cream, cream cheese frosting, and meringue topping.

This is an all-around terrific baking cookbook that I think would be especially beneficial to beginning bakers. And if you haven’t tried cooking from a digital cookbook, this could be a great one to try.

rose's baking basics

Apple Walnut Bundt Cake from Rose’s Baking Basics

Serves 12 to 14 │ Oven Temperature: 350°F/175°C │ Baking Time: 50 to 60 minutes

This is the perfect apple cake for the fall season, but it can be enjoyed any time of the year. It is great to have this Bundt cake in your repertoire as it is easy to make and stays moist and flavorful for 5 days at room temperature, up to 10 days refrigerated. Because it is made with oil, it can be enjoyed at room temperature or cold. The caramel glaze is an optional but fabulous accompaniment.

Baking Equipment

The pan must be a minimum 12 cup capacity, such as a Nordic Ware Anniversary Bundt Pan with 10-15 cup capacity, or a 12 cup Bundt pan, coated with baking spray with flour; or a 16 cup two-piece angel food pan, bottom lined with parchment, then coated with baking spray with flour


· 3 large eggs (½ cup plus 1 ¼ tablespoons, or 150 g)

· 1 cup (100 g) walnut halves

· 2 ½ cups (300 g) flour, lightly spooned into the cup and leveled off

· 1 teaspoon (5.5 g) baking soda

· 1 teaspoon (6 g) sea salt

· 2 teaspoons (4.4 g) ground cinnamon

· 4 large tart apples, diced (4 cups/525 g)

· 1 ¼ cups (269 g) canola or safflower oil

· 1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar

· ¾ cup (163 g) light brown sugar

· 2 teaspoons (10 ml) pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven

• 20 minutes before toasting the walnuts, set an oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Set the oven at 350°F/175°C

Mise en place

• 30 minutes to 1 hour ahead, set the eggs on the counter at room temperature (65° to 75°F/19° to 24°C)

 Toast and chop the walnuts: Spread the walnuts evenly on a cookie sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Turn the walnuts onto a clean dish town and roll and rub them around to loosen the skins. Discard any loose skins and let the nuts cool completely. Chop medium coarse.

rose's baking basics

• In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.

• Peel, core, and cut the apples into ⅛ to ¼ inch dice.

Make the batter

1. Into the bowl of a stand mixer, weigh or measure the eggs. Add the oil, gran­ulated and brown sugars, and the vanilla. With the flat beater, beat on medium for 1 minute, until blended

2. Add the flour mixture and beat on low for 20 seconds, just until incor­porated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl

3. Detach the bowl from the stand and with a large spoon stir in the apples and walnuts. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan

Bake the cake

4. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a wire cake tester inserted near the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center

Cool the cake.

5. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. If using a straight-sided pan, run a metal spatula between the sides of the pan and the cake. Invert the cake onto a wire rack that has been lightly coated with nonstick cooking spray and cool completely for about 1½ hours

Store airtight. Room temperature, 5 days; refrigerated, 10 days; frozen, 2 months.

12/19 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

ROSE’S BAKING BASICS by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 25, 2018). ISBN  978-0544816220. 400p.