Frosting takes the cake in Ann Arbor blogger Bernice Baran’s new book about sugary delights

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Bernice Baran and her book Frosted

Are you a frosting person or a cake person? 

I’ve heard people say that one or the other is the reason to eat cake. Ann Arbor blogger and baker Bernice Baran answers that question with frosting in her new book, Frosted

Thirteen recipes for buttercreams, cream cheese frosting, meringues, Bavarian cream, chocolate ganache, and others are scrumptiously employed to coat and fill layer cakes, sheet cakes, cupcakes, cookies, brownies, bars, breads, and tarts throughout the book. The 60 recipes combine flavors like a Frosted Animal Cracker Cake pictured on the book’s cover, the Chocolate Caramel Macchiato Cookies, Almond Raspberry Cupcakes, and Cookies & Cream Sweet Rolls. The base frosting recipes include variations depending on the flavors for each baked good. Baran also embraces classics like Dark Chocolate Marble Cake, Gingerbread House Cookies, and Chocolate Hazelnut Silk Pie. 

Throughout Frosted, Baran nods to her heritage with the recipe for Diplomat Cream from her mother and Hungarian Dobos Torte. Each recipe offers a paragraph about why Baran chose it, how it became part of her repertoire, what is unique about it, or which occasion calls for the treat. With one (or more!) kinds of frosting or sauce, plus the cake or other base, for each recipe, each dessert has many ingredients and steps that appear very worth it from the mouthwatering photographs. 

Baran keeps a website to document her baking and sends out an email newsletter. Pulp interviewed her about how she became a baker, what writing Frosted involved, and what inspires her. 

Kim Fairley’s Memoir "Shooting Out the Lights" Tells the Story of Navigating Her First Year of Marriage and an Unwanted Guest

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Kim Fairley and her book Shooting Out the Lights

Ann Arbor artist and writer Kim Fairley recalls the early days of her marriage to Vern Fairley and a visit from an unwelcome guest in her new memoir, Shooting Out the Lights. This fast-moving book focuses on what it was like to start a marriage amidst a big age gap, the aftermath of tragedy, and the contentious circumstances of an unrelated child who comes to stay with the couple. Fairley tells the story with humor and tenderness. 

While Fairley quickly becomes pregnant at 25 after they married in 1982, the memories of Ben, Vern’s son who died in an accidental shooting, haunt them. Vern agrees to take in Stanislaus, an 11-year-old son of a friend, and their newlywed days are interrupted. The unwanted responsibility forces the couple to face what happened in the past and look ahead to their growing family. 

A relic of the past is Ben’s bedroom, which had remained largely the same since his death. Fairley considers cleaning out the room in preparation for the new baby. She reflects on the task and its larger implications:

Does it matter to leave a legacy? My mother, jokingly, always said she wanted her endless pile of laundry done before she died. My father wanted to be missed by my mother. Maybe all that mattered was the here and now. Nobody two hundred years in the future would care a whit about any of us. It was the reality of Vern’s age and the recognition that he wouldn’t live forever that was getting to me. 

Fairley is forced to confront change and mortality amidst the joy of starting a family, and she looks back with the clarity of time. She adds, “Vern had contradictory impulses, as we all do, about whether to hang on or let go, preserve or move forward.” The dilemma is relatable, but it doesn’t make the choice any easier.  

Shooting Out the Lights is Fairley's second book. I interviewed her about what it was like to write this story. 

Carmen Bugan's essay collection articulates how poetry is an instrument of resistance

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Carmen Bugan and her book "Poetry and the Language of Oppression"

Carmen Bugan wields writing to understand and push back against the oppression and repression that she suffered while growing up in Romania in the 1970s and '80s and observed in her life and research. In her new book, Poetry and the Language of Oppression: Essays on Politics and Poetics, she writes: 

This personal background experience gave me a first-hand knowledge of the power of language—how it can be used as an instrument of oppression and how it can be used as an instrument of resistance. That knowledge has shaped my voice as a writer.

Language is on the one hand very damaging and on the other very powerful. Bugan’s writing demonstrates her resilience and courage to nevertheless express herself when facing oppression. 

Erin A. Craig’s "Small Favors" conjures dark forces in a reimagining of Rumpelstiltskin 

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Erin A. Craig and her book Small Favors

Photo by Cyndi Whipkey

The cover of YA author Erin A. Craig’s new novel, Small Favors, looks deceptively bright with flowers, bees, and honey dripping off of the letters in the title. Yet what sounds too good to be true just might be, as character Ellerie Downing learns in this reimagining of the fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin.

The setting of Amity Falls is a small, remote settlement in the Blackspire Mountains where neighbors rely on each other for their various skills, from carpentry to poultry farming. The Downing family are apiarists. They produce honey and also bake delectable honey cakes. 

This well-balanced community starts to fragment when people are killed on trips out of town, crops go bad, and accusations of wrongdoing multiply. Initially thought to be an issue with oversized wolves, it becomes clear that something more sinister is stirring and seeking to control the people, something that gives gifts in exchange for favors. 

Ellerie’s twin brother, Sam, describes an early encounter with the dark creatures to Ellerie:

U-M Professor David Potter looks at history and politics to understand radical change in his new book, "Disruption"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

David Potter and his book Disruption

“How do things change?” asks David Potter, a University of Michigan professor, in his new book, Disruption

This question is the basis for his in-depth examination of five groundbreaking periods in history: Christianity’s growth, the rise of Islam, the Protestant Reformation, popular sovereignty, and the political theorists Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer. The five chapters collectively span thousands of years and Potter sews together history, biography, and political thought to illustrate how ideas disrupt existing beliefs and structures. 

This kind of radical change, according to Potter, arises from fringe ideas that go against the existing state of affairs with a thought leader at the forefront. Many centuries ago, political structures that are foundational to government as we know it now had yet to be defined. For example, amid the rise of Islam when Ali ibn Abi Talib, a relative of the prophet Muhammad, was assassinated in 661, Potter writes:

U-M Lecturer Philip D’Anieri's Book Maps the Appalachian Trail Through the Stories of Its Developers

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Philip D’Anieri and his book The Appalachian Trail: A Biography.

Author photo by Alicia Farmer

The 2,000+-mile Appalachian Trail spans the eastern United States from Georgia to Maine, traversing 14 states in total. The trail looms large in the consciousness of many people, from sightseers to thru-hikers. But how did such a major trail get created?

U-M lecturer Philip D’Anieri shows how the Appalachian Trail could not exist without the significant effort and devotion of instrumental individuals over time in his new book, The Appalachian Trail: A Biography. He provides not only facts about the contributors’ lives but also insights into who they were and what motivated them to contribute to the AT. D’Anieri also examines how the AT forms and fits into our views of nature.

Each chapter outlines how a different person (or people) helped shape the trail’s establishment. The trail’s development occurred alongside the growth of the United States, causing conflict when the trail was at odds with roads, politics, or interests of private landowners. The story begins with Arnold Guyot’s mapping of the Appalachian Mountains, as published in an article in 1861. In subsequent years, various individuals explore and build miles of trail, from the librarian Horace Kephart to Benton McKaye’s coining of the name “Appalachian Trail” in the early 1900s.

The first thru-hikers, Earl Shaffer and Emma Gatewood in 1949 and 1955, respectively, influenced the use of the AT. Another chapter depicts Senator Gaylord Nelson, who introduced legislation to federally protect the trail in the 1960s and also founded Earth Day in 1970. The book goes on to describe the challenges and successes of the National Park Service, which sought to obtain land along the AT’s corridor. Bill Bryson’s bestseller, A Walk in the Woods published in 1998, drew many to the trail, as D’Anieri writes in the penultimate chapter.

At the start and end of the book, D’Anieri reflects on the Appalachian Trail’s meaning in the public consciousness and his own engagement with the trail. In the introduction, he writes:

The places we choose, and the way we then develop and manage them, tell us a lot about what we are asking from nature, what exactly we think we are traveling toward and escaping from, where we want to strike the balance between maddening civilization on the one hand, and heartless nature on the other.

This question sets the stage for studying various individuals’ involvement in the AT’s construction.

D’Anieri finishes the book by discussing his adventures in driving the length of the trail and hiking short sections. His points that the Appalachian Trail is for everyone, and that there is much value to walking rather than driving, offer a current take on the trail. There is a great opportunity to interact with nature via the AT, to step away from our existing lives for a different outlook.

I interviewed D’Anieri to learn more about his book and the process of writing it.

Zilka Joseph’s new chapbook, "Sparrows and Dust," finds parallels between humans and birds 

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Poet Zilka Joseph with her book Sparrows and Dust

What would it be like to be a bird? 

Ann Arbor poet Zilka Joseph’s new chapbook, Sparrows and Dust, imagines the parallels between human lives and the patterns of birds.

Birds become a constant in the poet’s life, from India to Michigan. Like the migrations of birds from place to place, the last poem begins with a description of the vastness of our collective lives and the places where we spend them: 

Between Worlds, 

             and in worlds within worlds, 
             we live. 

Throughout Joseph’s poems, all creatures are trying to make their way in the different places that form the settings for their lives. There are the geese and the poet observing them, and they are all distressed after five eggs disappear one spring. Yet being able to watch that drama play out is the result of a happy milestone of moving into a new condo for the poet. 

Another poem, “Negative Capability,” wonders at flight:

open sky                         sun so night comes                    stars wheel

we spiral higher              become air                                 is this
                                                                                          the bird way

Arrivals and departures, and worlds appearing or disappearing, happen through flying. A hummingbird visits in another poem, “So Much,” to get “one more hit of her liquid / sugar high ill- / usion on which / her flight / depends.” Slowly we piece together what flight might be like, what sustains it, and what possibilities it offers. 

Joseph’s poems sometimes alight on the birds themselves and other times show birds as metaphors, such as in the poem “Mama, Who’d Have Thought,” which speaks to the poet’s mother on how birds of prey are not a threat to safety but how police shootings and detaining children at the border are. In fact, many of the poems offer reflections on the poet’s parents. 

These poems hold many moments for the admiration of nature. “Fall Now” describes that “we count kestrels overhead / one monarch sits in my palm.” Joseph asks us to notice and appreciate. 

Joseph is a creative writing teacher, editor, and manuscript coach in Ann Arbor. I interviewed her about Sparrows and Dust, her teaching, and what she’s working on next. 

Detroit native and U-M grad Shannon McLeod’s new novella, "Whimsy," tells a different kind of teaching story

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Shannon McLeod and her novella Whimsy

Shannon McLeod’s new novella, Whimsy, depicts the perils of those post-college, early career years through the main character for which the book is titled, Whimsy Quinn, who narrates in first person. McLeod is a Detroit native, University of Michigan graduate, and now high school teacher in Virginia. 

Whimsy, who got her name because her parents wanted to name her something “that exuded light-heartedness,” works as a middle school teacher in Metro Detroit, copes with the aftermaths of a car accident that she was in, and navigates dating. She tells her story of how she weathers her setbacks, and it becomes clear how they strengthen her. When asked to describe teaching, for instance, Whimsy notes, “I told him I didn’t have much to compare it to, but that it seemed I had less free time and less money than people with other careers.” It is not a glowing description, but she also does not hate it. 

Much of the novella situates Whimsy in the classroom. Her profession brings both humor and growth for her. Of running a classroom, she reflects, “I don’t know if you ever recover from the feeling of thirty pairs of eyes staring at you in concert.” That description may sound nightmarish to those of us who do not want to be the center of attention. Yet, Whimsy gets through the first few days of the school year and finds that the students’ levels of observation fade because by "Halloween you’re at the bottom of the students’ lists of interests.” A welcome change. 

Teaching is fraught with challenges, though, from getting scolded by an administrator who questions Whimsy’s dedication to catching students passing notes in class, serving as a cafeteria monitor during lunchtime, and socializing with other teachers. Whimsy takes all these situations in stride. When she needs to be away from the classroom, she reveals, “I’d learned quickly not to expect my students to get anything done with a substitute teacher in the room.” A matter-of-fact and responsive character, Whimsy is well-suited to teaching even if she finds herself chagrined at times. 

While Whimsy is a self-aware and descriptive narrator, the prose remains sharp and tight. Scenes unfold and shift. The reader sees along with Whimsy what’s really happening, such as at a wedding where Whimsy drinks too much. She attends it with a journalist, Rikesh, who she’s seeing. When she finds herself crying in the bathroom, Rikesh finds her, and Whimsy notes, “He said he would take me home.” Yet, the next sentence shows a different outcome because, she thinks, “I thought he meant he was coming home with me.” The chapter ends there. Disappointment is palpable but not explicitly stated. The endings of all the chapters are poignant, each like a short story coming to a conclusion.  

I interviewed McLeod about her novella, participation with the Emerging Writers Workshops at the Ann Arbor District Library, the Wild Onion Novella Contest that Whimsy won, and what’s next.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel "The Five Wounds" expands on her New Yorker-published short story

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Kirstin Valdez Quade and her book The Five Wounds

Author photo by Holly Andres.

All of the characters in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s new book, The Five Wounds, are going through something major. While the challenges—teen pregnancy, addiction, cancer—are not uncommon, the ways that each generation of the family handles their circumstances drive the novel.

One character, Angel, has a son at age 15 and quickly becomes aware of how the adults around her do not actually have their lives together. Not only does she have that insight but she also must persevere when she doesn’t get the support that she needs and when she has to instead support the people who are supposed to be helping her. 

Yet, Angel proves herself resilient, even from a young age. Her mother, Marissa, informs Angel:

“When you were three you said, ‘Mama, can you tell me all the things I don’t know?’ You were so impatient to learn and make your own way.

Angel smiles. “I don’t remember that.” 

Knowing things does not comprise all of Angel’s learning, though. Along the way, she gains wisdom on what people are like and how to interact with them. 

Her father, Amadeo, tries and tries to get his life together but keeps succumbing to alcoholism. He acts before he thinks. An accident caused by his carelessness and drinking miraculously results in only minor injuries, but it is the only thing that can convince him to get his life on track, not just for himself but for his family, especially as the whole family dynamic shifts when people enter and exit their lives. 

Camille Pagán's "Don’t Make Me Turn This Life Around" was partly inspired by the Ann Arbor author's disastrous vacation

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Camille Pagán's Don’t Make Me Turn This Life Around

During this cloistered pandemic year, lots of us have daydreamed about escaping to sunny, tropical destinations.

So readers drawn to the beach-y cover of Ann Arbor-based novelist Camille Pagán's latest release, Don’t Make Me Turn This Life Around, may be initially surprised to find that the book tells the story of a family getaway to Puerto Rico that goes very, very wrong.

But let’s keep in mind the time in which it was born.

“It’s my pandemic book,” says Pagán, and it follows up on the characters from her Amazon bestseller Life and Other Near Death Experiences but can also stand on its own. “It took me a while to get excited about it. … But I knew I wasn’t done with Libby. She’s my favorite of any of the characters I’ve created.”