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June 16, 2010

Book Notes - William Alexander ("52 Loaves")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

William Alexander's new book 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust is ostensibly about baking one loaf of bread a week in search of the perfect loaf, but achieves much more.

Split into 52 chapters (one per week), 52 Loaves is as much memoir as cooking companion. Through his culinary successes, failures, and field trips, Alexander honestly shares his life, often with self-deprecating humor and witty insights. His inquisitive nature shines through as he explores the history of breadmaking as well as his own tinkering with recipes and techniques.

As a foodie and cook myself, I adored this book. William Alexander is a kindred spirit, a man not afraid to share his life and goals with the world (and teach us a thing or two along the way).

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"Alexander's breathless, witty memoir is a joy to read. It’s equal parts fact and fun as he visits a yeast factory, enrolls in a bread-baking seminar in Paris, and wins second place in the New York State Fair bread competition, Category 02, Yeast Breads."

In his own words, here is William Alexander's Book Notes music playlist for his book, 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust:

For reasons too complicated to go into here (but, of course, fully explained in the book), near the end of my year of baking bread I found myself, an amateur baker who hadn't stepped into a church in years, who spoke almost no French and was in possession of limited baking skills, at a medieval monastery in France teaching a French monk how to bake traditional French bread. I was there, as I told the TSA agent who balked at my bringing raw sourdough (which admittedly looked like plastique explosive) onto the plane, to restore the recently lost 1300-year-old tradition of bread-making at the abbey.

Stepping into the abbey's fifteenth-century church on the day of my arrival, feeling very much like a sinner in the first pew (and both of those circumstances are literally accurate), I relaxed instantly when the monks began to sing, soothed by their beautiful Gregorian chanting. Their voices were so polished and uplifting that I later asked only half-jokingly if you had to audition to be a monk. (What a great idea for a reality show: Monastic Idol.)

While 52 Loaves is ostensibly about my quest to the bake the perfect loaf of peasant bread, it is equally about the meditative power of repetition, a search for meaning, truth, and redemption, and of trusting one's instincts. Music — and sound, from the roar of air blowers in a yeast factory to the ominous call to prayer waking me before dawn in Morocco to even the "singing" of bread as it comes out of the oven and meets cooler air — all of these left indelible memories in a year that changed me forever. We begin, of course, with the abbey.

"Exultate Deo" - The choir of the monks of l'Abbaye Saint-Wandrille

Gregorian chant has seen a bit of a revival in recent years, and the world in a richer place for it. I found myself going to the abbey's church up to seven times day to listen to the monks chant. When I listen to this CD (a gift from the abbot) today it brings me right back to St.-Wandrille (often accompanied by tears), and I think I even recognize some of the voices from my week-long stay as the abbey's boulanger.

"Notre Devoir" - Intik

No-knead bread? Who needs it! I knead bread by hand for only five to seven minutes, almost always to the accompaniment of music. Reggae, with its solid and steady beat, tends to lend itself well to this task, and this and the next two selections are from various Putumayo world reggae collections. Intik is an Algerian rap and reggae group. The lyrics are in French (the title means "our duty"), so I'm not distracted by the words (same goes for the other kneading choices here) and can focus on the dough. The singer's voice has more than a passing resemblance to Bob Marley's.

"Congo Natty" - Bingui Jaa Jammy

From the opening notes, this artist from the tiny African nation of Burkina Faso evokes a heat, sweatiness, and sensuality not often found in music — a perfect track for summertime bread-making, when the livin' may be easy but the bread-making is hard and sweaty.

"O Si Keka" - Kaissa

This is a hauntingly beautiful song from a hauntingly beautiful woman who moved from her native Cameroon to Paris when she was 13. (Putumayo liner notes are great.) As I struggled to complete 52 Loaves, trying to balance the demands of my day job as an IT director with the task of completing a 100,000 word memoir, I often made a point of having this song playing in the car as I pulled into work. Something about the mixture of strength and sensuality (she sounds like a women you'd love to mess with — but don't dare — made it easier to get out of the car and walk into the office to face another day.

"Aqualung" - Jethro Tull

Wait, let me explain before you mouse off the page in disgust! I've include this because Jethro Tull is mentioned in the first chapter of 52 Loaves:

"We need Jethro Tull's seed drill," I remarked, as Anne continued to press seeds into the earth.

She didn't take the bait.

"Sitting on a park bench, da, da-daaaa, eying little girls, with bad intent," I sang, getting her attention, not to mention thoroughly irritating her. Anne had once unbuckled her seat belt and threatened to get out of the car — at sixty miles an hour — if I didn't remove Aqualung from the CD player.

"Jethro Tull invented the seed drill, you know."

"First of all, Jethro Tull is the group, not the lead singer. He's Ian somebody."

I knew that, of course, because my freshman year in college I'd thoroughly embarrassed myself by trying to impress my dorm mates, exclaiming, "Man, I love the way that guy Tull handles the flute." Thirty-odd years later, I was apparently still trying to redeem myself vis-à-vis Mr. Tull.

"No, no, the original Jethro Tull. His seed drill drilled the hole, dropped in the seed, and covered it up, all in one shot. Amazing invention for 1700, wasn't it?"

But you know what, still a great album after all these years, and addresses some of the same cynicism about religion that I address in the book.

"Don't Fear the Reaper" – Blue Oyster Cult

Had to include this because I have a chapter of the same title about my woefully inept efforts growing, threshing, and winnowing wheat. I'm pretty sure that the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company once used this as an ad slogan, but had to drop my joke about seventies bands and farm implements (see JT, above) when I couldn't come up with proof for my fact checker. Remarkably, the song seems to have found a new audience. I heard it on a compilation tape belonging to my teenage daughter!

"On N'A Pas Beson" - Paris Combo

We'll always have Paris, as they say, and maybe the group Paris Combo evokes the sounds of a Parisian café society that all but vanished with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemmingway, but I spent a week of my year of baking dangerously at bread school in Paris, taking classes by day and meeting up with my wife for drinks at various cafés afterwards, and this is how I remember it. Jaunty, traditional, and easy to sip. Viva la France!

"Quelqu'un M'A Dit" - Carla Bruni

Yes, that Carla Bruni, who before she became the "First Lady of France" was a singer and model. Bruni may be Italian by birth, but this song makes me want to run back to France, where the women are stylish, the food sublime, and the bread — let's not forget the bread — is the best in the world. Bon appétit and bonne écoute!

William Alexander and 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust links:

the author's website
the author's blog

Art & Literature review
BookPage review
Boston Globe review
Chocolate & Zucchini review
Foodie and the Everyman review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Morning Edition review
Oregonian review
Richmond Times-Dispatch review
Sacramento Book Review review
Southern Hospitality review
Taste As You Go review
We Are Never Full review

The Diane Rehm Show interview with the author
Portland Farmers Market interview with the author
WAMC interview with the author
Weekend Edition profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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