Tuesday, December 31, 2013

SCARAMOUCHE by Raphael Sabatini and My Back to the Classics 2013 Wrap Up

What if the French Revolution was actually spurred on not solely by the anger and desperation of the masses, but for the love of a noblewoman? That is the swashbuckling, romantic premise of Rafael Sabatini’s historical adventure Scaramouche. When my dear friend Tasha of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books said that this was one of her favorite books ever, I knew I had the “Classic Adventure” category for the Back to the Classics Challenge nailed – but I didn’t anticipate how much fun it would be. I absolutely loved this book!

Andre-Louis Moreau is a young lawyer of uncertain parentage who has been educated by his godfather, M. de Kecadiou. He is in love with Kecadiou’s niece Aline, although considering that everyone in pre-Revolutionary Brittany believes him to be the bastard child of his godfather, he has no hope of ever marrying her. Andre-Louis is particularly disgusted when an older aristocrat of the worst king, M. de la Tour d’Azyr, asks for Aline’s hand in marriage. When Tour d’Azyr kills Andre-Louis’s young priest friend for his speech against the French establishment, the two men are set against each other in a feud that it seems can only end with the death of one of them.

Andre-Louis naively believes that his knowledge of law will bring Tour d’Azyr to justice. But he is forced to confront for the first time the French system in which privilege is more important than justice. At that point, he puts his powerful ability for rhetoric to work for the cause of reform, although it’s by no means clear whether or not he actually believes in the cause himself, or just wants to make trouble for Tour d’Azyr and his kind. From that point on, Andre-Louis goes from adventure to adventure, first as a roadie for a circus troop, and ultimately its star, Scaramouche. From there he becomes a master swordsman, owner of a fencing academy, and ultimately a politician, always guided by the move that will bring Tour d’Azyr the most misery. In a letter to Tour d’Azyr, Andre-Louis reveals the depths of his hatred:

Had you died, had you been torn limb from limb that night, I should now repine in the thought of your eternal and untroubled slumber. Not in euthanasia, but in torment of mind should the guilty atone. You see, I am not sure that hell hereafter is a certainty, whilst I am quite sure that it can be a certainty in this life; and I desire you to continute to live yet awhile that you may taste something of its bitterness. p. 209

Italian-English Sabatini has a real gift for recreating the sensibility pre-Revolutionary France, and I loved how he peppered the novel with historical characters so seamlessly. Knowing the outcome only increased the sense of doom gathering, like watching the guillotine platform being built. I really don’t want to say anything else, because I’m afraid of giving anything away. You simply have to read it! Truly, you must.

Back to the Classics 2013 Wrap-Up

So that’s my last review of the year, finishing up one of the few challenges I entered – seems fitting. I really enjoyed all of the books for the challenge:

1. 19th century classic: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
2. 20th century classic : Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
3. Classic from the 18th century, or earlier: Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
4. Classic related to the African-American experience: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
5. Adventure classic: Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini
6. Classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title: Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

I love the mix of English language and translation, male and female authors and varying time periods that this year’s list represents. My favorite was definitely Their Eyes Were Watching God -- it was an absolute revelation. But it would be difficult to pick a least favorite among the group – I’d recommend any of them. Every author was new to me, which was one thing I hoped to accomplish with this Challenge, and aside from de Laclos (who was apparently a one-hit wonder, literarily) I would definitely read other books by the same authors.

I've finished six titles from my Classics Club list since August, so I am happily ahead of the 10/year pace. Scaramouche, like so many classic titles, was available as a free Kindle download. That means my total for the Classics Club remains at $12.29, or about 2.05 per title! Happy New Year, and Happy Reading, everyone!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

PINOCCHIO: THE TALE OF A PUPPET by Carlo Collodi

When it came to this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge, the one that really stumped me was the “Animal” category. My immediate thought was to include a classic children’s book in that slot, since kids and animals seem to go together. But it wasn’t as easy as you’d think. I didn’t want to do a re-read, so Charlotte’s Web and Call of the Wild were out. And I didn’t want to read something that was going to make me cry, so forget Old Yeller or Black Beauty. In desperation, I turned to goodreads.com and found an unlikely list: “Best Anthropomorphic Animal Books." (Random, don’t you think? I am beginning to think there’s a goodreads list for everything!) And that’s why I whittled away (sorry I couldn’t resist) a couple of hours with this children’s classic last month.

Those who like me haven’t read Carlo Collodi’s original story of the marionette who comes to life might be surprised at how closely the folks at Disney actually followed the original Pinocchio. There are differences, of course, but the bulk of the plot was the same. As you might expect, the original is way more violent than the Disney version -- Pinocchio manages to kill the conscientious cricket who was later renamed Jiminy by folks at Disney during their first meeting, for example. Strangely, the original is also way preachier than the Disney version, with constant lessons about young boys’ behavior.

I guess the biggest surprise for me was that Pinocchio is a lot less likeable as a character in the original version of the story. He’s no sooner sentient than he’s jeering and rude to poor Gepetto. The innocent quality of the Disney version was entirely lacking. Pinocchio isn’t led off the straight and narrow because of bad company in Collodi’s story; his flaws appear to be innate. I found that such an interesting take on the nature of children. Are they inherently innocent and needing to be protected, or are they inherently bad and needing to be brought to heel?

For example, toward the end of the book, Pinocchio’s bad behavior causes him “donkey fever,” and his kind friend the Marmot has to tell him the sad truth about what has happened to him:

”My dear boy,” said the Marmot, by way of consoling him, “you can do nothing. It is destiny. It is written in the decrees of wisdom that all boys who are lazy, and who take a dislike to books, to schools, and to masters, and who pass their time in amusement, games, and diversions, must end sooner or later by becoming transformed into so many little donkeys.” Kindle location 1265 of 1637

I actually enjoyed reading Collodi’s Pinocchio, but here’s the thing: I’m not sure that the average 21st Century parent would relish reading the original version of this classic to their children. Yes, there is ultimately a happy ending, but that comes through Pinocchio learning the difficult lessons of self-denial and obedience -- and those things seem somehow woefully out of fashion today. Cleverness and individuality and most other values that contemporary children’s book authors focus on are entirely absent in Collodi’s tale. But that may be too bad, because thrift and selflessness are still powerful values for children to emulate. In fact, they may be increasingly important values for the generation of kids who need to deal with problems like global warming and the knowledge gap. Maybe there’s a place for another interpretation of the tale, minus the corporal punishment and violence, but more in keeping with the redemptive nature of work, from Collodi’s perspective?

So that’s the fifth book for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and number 5 on my Classics Club list. And the good news is that I have the last book read, so that review will be coming tomorrow, meaning I will at least finish the one Challenge I joined this year! Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet (translated by Alice Carsey) was available as a free Kindle title, so the cost of the challenge after 5 books remains $12.29 -- or about $2.46 per title. Thanks to Sarah Reads Too Much and the Classics Club crew for hosting the 2013 challenge! I'm looking forward to participating in 2014 when it will be hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

THE SUPREME MACARONI COMPANY by Adriana Trigiani

I’m originally from Queens, NY. I’m from a big, Catholic family that still chronicles life events by the parish they took place in. (“Remember when Michael was born? We must have been living in Elmhurst, because he was baptized at St. Bart’s.”) I love food and travel. And for many years my husband and I ran a business together. Little wonder, then, that I loved Adriana Trigiani’s The Supreme Macaroni Company. As usual, I felt like I knew every character in the book.

The novel (the third in Trigiani’s Valentine Trilogy) begins with couture Italian-American shoe designer Valentine Roncalli’s engagement to the older, infinitely handsome Gianluca Vechiarelli, an Italian leather maker. I found it a very satisfying place for an adult romance novel to begin. After all, anyone who’s been married for any length of time knows that’s when the work actually begins. And that’s exactly how it is for Valentine and Gianluca. Once the romantic haze of courtship is done, every couple is faced with making one life out of two separate ones. The Supreme Macaroni Company celebrates the hard work, negotiation and forbearance that make a marriage work – along with a healthy dose of good humor.

One of the core elements of the book is the unexpected culture clash that comes with the marriage of an Italian-American woman to an Italian man. So much of Valentine’s definition of self in the earlier book was wrapped up in her ethnicity. In the US, she’s Italian-American – emphasis on the “Italian” part. But as she spends time with her Italian husband and his extended family – his pregnant daughter and his enigmatic ex-wife, especially – she is forced to redefine her emphasis, becoming increasingly aware of the “American” part of the equation:

During my travels in Italy, the Italian wives seemed practical and a little removed. There appeared in them a resignation to the order and roles established in life as it had been for generations. How was I going to continue to be the woman I was, split between these two cultures, who had little in common when it came to a woman’s ambition and drive? I figured I was in for it. What, I didn’t know. But I loved Gianluca and figured it had to go my way. This is also the hallmark of an American sensibility. Things naturally work out for the best when intention is clear. Or do they? p. 104

The Supreme Macaroni Company is so much more than chic lit, although I have seen it described that way. It continues Trigiani’s ongoing meditation on the vanishing world of fine craftsmanship. It also delves into the economic issues involved in America’s cheaper-is-better, import-driven economy. But it remains a romance at its heart, and I enjoyed almost every page of it. Every page, that is, until the ending, which I found absolutely heartbreaking, especially as the end of a trilogy. I thought it was just too sad a way to finish, undercutting the overall tone of the series, I thought. It’s listed as the last book in a trilogy, but I’m hoping that it also marks the start of another series, because I would really hate to be saying good-bye to Valentine and her family forever.

I read this as part of a TLC Book Tour. I received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. And I honestly loved it! Thanks, as always, for including me on the tour. Please check the other stops on the tour for additional opinions about The Supreme Macaroni Company. Sorry this post is a bit late - the end of the semester combined with Christmas to keep me from the fun stuff!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

LITERARY BLOG HOP WINNER!

And the random integer generator says: 2!

Rebecca of Love at First Book will receive a copy of Lolita. That was a surprisingly popular choice on this thread. I wonder if we should suggest a Classics Club Read-Along? It seems to be on a lot of lists.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by, and especially to those who became followers of my blog. I always find so many great new blogs through this hop.

And, of course, thanks to Judith at leeswammes for hosting the Literary Blog Hop! I'm already looking forward to the next one!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

LITERARY BLOG HOP: A CLASSIC WIN!

Some of the best reading time I have put in this year has been through my Classics Club list, finally getting to Classics I have somehow missed until now. Some of the books were inspired by The Guardian’s 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read list, but others are lesser known titles from the NYRB Classics imprint. So here’s my Blog Hop idea – why don’t you read along with me?

Here’s how to play: 1) go to my Classics Club list above, and take a look at the titles; 2) follow my blog if you'd like (not required, but very nice); and 3) leave a comment below, including your email address, telling me which book you’d like to read from my Classics Club list. (I’d be surprised if you can’t find one title you’d like to read, but if that’s the case, you can substitute another book from either of the two lists I’ve mentioned, and tell me why you’d rather read that one instead!) Entries close at 11:59 GMT on November 13. At that time I’ll let random.org generate a random integer based on the number of comments I get. And if it’s your number, the book is yours! This is worldwide stop on the Blog Hop, open to anyone in a place where Book Depository or Amazon delivers – $30 limit, but I think all the books on my list can be found for far less!

Thanks, as always, to Judith at leeswammes for hosting this Literary Blog Hop. Good luck, and Happy Hopping!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

FIESTA OF SMOKE by Suzan Still

I love novels about novelists. I love novels about Mexico. I love novels about love. I love novels that are descriptive, written so that other places, people and relationships practically walk off the pages and into my living room. Suzan Still’s Fiesta of Smoke is that kind of novel.

Graduate student Calypso Searcy meets Javier Carteña when he accidentally knocks her over, running away from a shoplifting incident. He tracks her down and breaks into her apartment to apologize. This marks the beginning of a love affair that will span decades and borders and marriages and love affairs with other people, as Calypso slowly comes to take on Javier’s cause – social justice for Mexico’s indigenous people – as her own.

Still writes characters I’d like to meet, in circumstances I have trouble imagining. I absolutely love how she brought the unlikely chemistry between Calypso and Javier to life, as when they meet after years and sit next to each other at a jai alai game:

At the point where their bodies met – their hands and arms, tips of their shoulders, their thighs and feet – all along the left side of her body, in fact, there was blissful peace, as if that portion of her flesh, at least, had finally come home to roost.
He leaned into her in that way he always had when they were at odds, of ignoring her and communicating with her at the same time. It was the feeling of utter physical intimacy. She relaxed into this sensation, precious beyond thought. The jai alai games continued below but Calypso was sunk in a sea of both remembrance and immediate awareness. At last, she understood Camus: she was lucid and in ecstacy.
p. 163

What do I not love? Novels that bounce around in time. I’m a chronological kind of girl, and I don’t really enjoy starting at the end or in the middle. And then heading somewhere else. My one quibble about the book was the way it ricocheted between decades and locations and different parts of characters’ lives in a way that I found kind of confusing. And let’s face it, the situation in Mexico – corrupt politicians, paramilitary organizations, unbelievable wealth next to unfathomable poverty – is confusing enough.

In general, though, I loved the book, and would certainly recommend it to lovers of contemporary fiction. The military themes and the precarious situation in Mexico give the book, especially the ending, a bit of the feel of a thriller. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. Thanks to Trish for including me on the tour! Follow this link to see what others had to say about this title.

Monday, October 28, 2013

THE BIG CLOCK by Kenneth Fearing

A murder investigation in which the investigator already believes he knows who the murderer is – and yet realizes he himself is being framed for the crime. He has to keep the investigation going long enough to reveal the murderer before the murderer realizes he was recognized. That is the taut, electrifying premise of Ken Fearing’s noir NYRB Classic The Big Clock.

George Stroud, editor of Crimeways magazine, is not a nice person. Despite the fact he has a sweet wife and an adorable kid (both nicknamed “George”), he begins a casual affair with his boss’ girlfriend, Pauline. After dropping her off from a clandestine weekend, he spies his boss following her up the stairs to her apartment. Two days later the cleaning lady finds she’s been murdered. George’s boss, publishing mogul Earl Janoth, tasks George with tracking down the killer – but all clues lead back to Pauline’s lover, who just happens to be George. The rest of the book is a study in tension, as George follows the steps that will inevitably lead to revealing himself as Pauline’s lover, thereby destroying his home life, his job, and quite possibly his life, if Janoth is the real killer.

I looked out the windows myself. There was a lot of territory out there. A nation within a nation. If I picked the right kind of a staff, twisted the investigation where I could, jammed it where I had to, pushed it hard where it was safe, it might be a very, very, very long time before they found George Stroud. p. 90

This short novel, told through multiple narrators who sound like witnesses giving testimony, really packs a punch. It’s fun to watch George, the sleazy philanderer who thought he covered his tracks so well, come to realize how easy his actions were to trace. Part of the giveaway comes in George’s peculiar taste in art, which was fine. But I really didn’t get why Fearing included the perspective of the artist in the novel. I thought it confused a very tight plot.

It’s easy to see why this is a noir classic, however, and a perfect choice for both the R.I.P. VIII Challenge and the Classics Club. That makes four for this season’s R.I.P. Challenge, but I’m still hoping to review one more before the week is out! Thanks so much to Carl V. for hosting! This is the first of the NYRB Classics on my Classics Club List I have gotten to, and I am happy I have so many of these once out-of-print titles on my TBR pile. They add an element of mental detective work to my reading, wondering why they went out of fashion in the first place.

FTC Statement: I did not receive a copy of this book for review. I borrowed it from the library. That brings my Classic Club average cost per book down to $3.07!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cookbook Review: THE FOOD YOU CRAVE by Ellie Krieger

Getting back to school means getting back to routines and getting back to health. So one of the book recommendations I was most enthusiastic about trying this fall was a recommendation from our own Beth Fish: The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life by Ellie Krieger.

As the Weekend Cooking crew may remember, I have a love/hate relationship with Food Network personality cookbooks. But this particular book won a James Beard Award in the category of “Cookbook with a Healthy Focus.” Those two recommendations were enough to put the book on my library list.

Who is Ellie Krieger? Krieger is a registered dietician with a Master’s degree in Nutrition. She hosts the Food Network show Healthy Appetite. Krieger is a prominent member of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, and she was head nutritionist for the White House’s “Healthy Kids Fair.”

Take on Cooking: Traditional favorites reimagined into healthy meals.

The Delicious Parts:The book is beautifully designed, with lots of photos (although not for every recipe). The recipes are easy to understand and prep, without myriad ingredients that some healthy cookbooks employ to make up for a lack of fat, so I found they were fine for weeknights. Her strategy is to change the proportions of non-healthy ingredients in recipes, rather than use unpleasant or unsatisfying substitutes, which I appreciated. The book is jam-packed with nutritional information, which I found very helpful. For example, rather than just give total fat information for recipes, she breaks down both good (mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like the ones found in nuts and veggies) and bad (saturated) fats. She also includes daily numbers to shoot for in many nutrition categories.

My First Bites: I cooked four recipes from the book: Confetti Chili, Aromatic Noodles with Lime-Peanut Sauce, Buffalo Chicken Salad and Chicken Chop Suey. They all came together easily, and my family enjoyed them all. The Confetti Chili was spicy from the chipotle, smoky from the adobo sauce and cumin, and sweet from the corn. Made with canned beans (suggested by Krieger) and tons of veggies, it came together in about an hour. It could easily become our house chili. The only recipe my husband wasn’t too enthusiastic about was the Chop Suey. It was a bit bland, but since the original is kind of a bland, Americanized version of Chinese food, it would probably be a winner with people who are fans. And even at that, I got a great idea for turning dumpling skins into a healthier Asian crunchy topping than those canned fried noodles.

Not Quite To My Taste: When it comes to dinner, Krieger really focuses on meat dishes. Red meat factors heavily in the Main Course section, but we don’t tend to eat steaks and chops very often. Still, for meat lovers, finding healthier ways of cooking them would be a real plus. Oddly, I wasn’t blown away by the salad choices; many were more “go-withs” than meals on their own. Still, those negatives are based on my personal taste and lifestyle. I think Krieger really does a great job with the promise of the book.

Recommendation? Devour, Split, Send it Back to the Kitchen? Devour or split, definitely – but I’d lean toward devour if you’re looking for a solid, healthy lifestyle cookbook with a broad range of recipes. You certainly won’t be disappointed with this one.

One Great Recipe: Ellie Krieger’s Confetti Chili

1 T olive oil
1 small onion, diced (1 cup)
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and diced (1 cup)
1 medium carrot, diced (½ cup)
2 t ground cumin
1 t ground coriander
1 lb. lean or extra lean (90% lean or higher) ground beef
One 28-oz can no-salt added crushed tomatoes, with their juices
2 c water
1 canned chipotle chili in adobo sauce, seeded and minced, plus 2 t of the sauce (I didn’t seed the chipotles, because we love heat)
½ t oregano
One 15.5 oz can black beans, preferably low-sodium, drained and rinsed
One 15.5 oz can kidney beans, preferably low-sodium, drained and rinsed
1 ½ c frozen corn kernels
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1) Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and carrot, cover, and cook, stirring, for occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the cumin coriander and cook, stirring for 1 minute. And the ground beef; raise the heat to high and cook, breaking up the meat with a spoon, until the meat is no longer pink. Stir in the tomatoes, water, chipotle and adobo sauce, and oregano and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, partially covered, stirring from time to time, for 30 minutes.

2) Stir in the beans and continue cooking, partially covered, 20 minutes longer, until the chili is nicely thickened. Stir in the corn and cook until heated through. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review. I borrowed it from the library.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by Zora Neale Hurston

I was completely taken in from the first page of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. And yet I’ve struggled with this review because I just can’t seem to put the book into words. So maybe it will be easier to put it into one word: voluptuous. I have never read a novel that appealed so viscerally to my senses.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. p. 13

That’s pretty heady stuff for a walk in the woods!

A member of the Harlem Renaissance movement, Hurston attempted to capture a microcosm of the post-Civil War experience of African-American women with Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book begins with Janie Crawford, a beautiful teenager, awakening to the sensuousness of the South in springtime. Her grandmother panics at her first kiss, fearing she will go down the path of the mother who had and then abandoned Janie, and so she marries her off to a secure but boring local farmer. Janie’s personality can’t be contained, however, and she walks off the farm one day with Jody, a man she believes will lead her to adventure. He brings Janie to one of the newly-built African-American towns in Central Florida, and quickly becomes the town’s mayor. But Janie finds out that having money and prestige is very different from having happiness.

Still, Janie’s disappointing marriage to Jody eventually leaves her a young, rich widow. And her independence gives her something she’s never had: choices. When she meets Teacake, a guitar-playing gambler, she experiences the “springtime” she remembers from her youth. Because she owns a home she can choose to leave it. Because she has lived conventionally she can choose to flout convention. Janie’s self-actualization becomes an allegory for the Harlem Renaissance itself, ready to break free from the constraints of white society and create something truly unique and beautiful on its own.

I’m sorry it took me so long to get this review up – it would have been a perfect choice for Banned Book Week, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a great Harlem Renaissance title. It is partially written to capture the Southern African-American vernacular of the time, and that slowed down my reading a bit at times, but it didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment: it just made me focus. One thing I found personally captivating was the book’s location. I lived in Gainesville, Florida, for six years, so I had an easy time imagining the wild lushness of rural central Florida and its small, isolated little towns. I would encourage all lovers of literary fiction to read this book. Southern literature enthusiasts and classic romance readers would enjoy it as well. It spans so many boundaries: humorous but heartbreaking, classic but out of the ordinary, ancient but totally fresh.

What a fantastic Classics Club title! I can’t figure out how Their Eyes Were Watching God was a completely new title to me – I saw it on the ALA’s list of Banned and Challenged Classics and couldn’t remember ever having heard about it. But a quick look at the synopsis told me I’d found a title that fit the African-American Experience Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge – and the story looked compelling to boot. So I plonked down the whopping $9.78 cost of the Kindle edition and got to work (for anyone keeping count, that’s $12.29 for my Classics Club reading so far, for an average of about $4.10 per title). I’m quite sure this going to be one of my favorite books of the year, so it was more than worth the cost of the e-book. And both of those challenges are happily on track! Next up – two classics that fit into the RIP Challenge coming soon!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

First Chapter, First Paragraph Tuesday Intro: AN INCURABLE INSANITY by Simi K. Rao

“Ruhi Sharma was a blushing bride, practically a newlywed, locked up in this glittering cage for almost a month, twenty-nine days to be exact; an object of envy of all her friends and family.

Twenty-nine days ago, she had signed her name beside his on the marriage certificate. She had gone through all the miscellaneous ceremonies associated with the typical grand Indian wedding – the engagement, the Menhendi, the Sangeet, the Haldi, and the grand finale (her father had spared no expense) until finally her betrothed had staked his claim by placing the Sindoor on her forehead and typing the Mangalsutra around her neck, and she had quietly and blissfully followed him around the sacred fire carefully listening to and reciting the Saath Pheras in her mind.”

I think this is a fantastic opening. I really love books that give me insights into other cultures, so I will definitely keep reading. Would you?

I am reading An Incurable Insanity as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. I will be writing a complete review of this title soon. In the meantime, you'll find other opinions and reviews of the book here. Thanks, Lisa, for including me on the tour!

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where bloggers can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book they are reading or thinking about reading soon. You'll find this week's links here.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I AM VENUS by Bárbara Mujica

In a “perfect” novel, you wouldn’t notice narration. The perspective provided by the text would be so clear, so seamless, that the reader would have complete comprehension of the characters and plot. Of course, there is no “perfect” novel. Authors are constrained by language and struggle with the perspective of the narrator in their storytelling. In I Am Venus, Bárbara Mujica attempts to break free of those narrative constraints. I cannot say that I thought the experiment was totally successful, but I do appreciate the desire for enhanced perspective without multiple narrators that the author was striving to achieve.

The story starts with a prologue, in which the mysterious model for Diego Velásquez’s “The Toilette of Venus” describes the secret conditions that accompanied creation of the painting. Now in Britain’s National Gallery, “Venus” is the painter’s only extant nude, because the strict conservatism of the Catholic Church in Spain forbade painters from depicting illicit scenes. It caused a sensation when it was eventually found in the collection of a Spanish noble, but Velásquez managed to avoid prosecution because of the mythological subject matter: by adding Cupid holding a mirror, the painter went from pornographer to classicist under the Inquisitorial logic of the time.

The story focuses more on the life of Velásquez and his family than on the painting of Venus, however. This was where the peculiarities of the narration became apparent – and frankly distracting. The narration changed from first person to third person when the narrator was describing things about which she had no direct knowledge. However, it became clear that the first person narrator was also describing herself in the third person, as though she is looking on at her own life in an objective way – subjecting herself to the artist’s gaze, in a way. The choice is interesting, of course, because Velásquez famously used mirrors in both “The Toilette of Venus” and “Las Meninas” to work beyond the limiting borders of a flat canvas, giving it a 3-dimensional quality. And in “Las Meninas,” the artist boldly inserted himself into a portrait of the royal family, turning the painter himself into a subject. Perhaps that's what Mujica was trying to recreate with her fictitious author.

I liked the subject matter of this book very much. I knew next to nothing about Velásquez and the court of Felipe IV before I read it, so I really enjoyed learning about the history of post-Armada Spain. I was especially curious about the life of the painter after having the chance to see his Baroque masterpiece, “Las Meninas,” in the Prado a few years ago. I’d seen a hundred depictions of it, but seeing it in person was absolutely inspiring – it’s both beautiful and playful at the same time. So I was grateful for Mujica’s ability to bring the great master to life.

I was less satisfied by the character development in the book, however. I never got to love any of the main characters. This is especially odd considering who the mysterious model turns out to be in the end, but I don’t want to go into details. Suffice it to say that when I got to the end I felt like the narration choice made even less sense in retrospect. But maybe that’s just me. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, so you can read other opinions of the book by following the links here. I received a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion. Thanks, as always, to Lisa for including me on the tour.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Col’s Plum and Almond Bread

This must have been a banner year for plums. My daughter’s music teacher showed up with a bag. And there was a peck left in the break room with a “Please take some” sign. I love stone fruit, but I have to admit I don’t cook with plums very often. So I put the largesse to work in an infinitely malleable Mark Bittman recipe for Fruit and Nut Bread. And I have to admit the results were so good that I’d actually buy plums to make it again – so I thought I’d share.

Col’s Plum and Almond Bread

(adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup sugar
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
4 Tbs. unsalted butter (plus more for the loaf pan)
1 ¼ cup skim milk
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
¼ tsp. almond extract
1 cup chopped plums
½ cup slivered almonds

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the dry ingredients in a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until it’s completely worked into the flour. Place the flour mixture in a large mixing bowl. (Don’t continue in the food processor, or the bread will be tough.)

2) Whisk together the milk, egg and extracts. Fold into the dry ingredients, but don’t over mix. Next fold in the plums and any juice that have accumulated. And then fold in the nuts. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan and bake for 55-60 minutes. It’s done when skewer poked into the center comes out clean.

3) Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire cooling rack. Try to keep the kids from slicing until it’s completely cool, but don’t count on it.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

FOOD FROM MANY GREEK KITCHENS by Tessa Kiros

One week on Cyprus was enough to hook me on Greek food forever. I absolutely loved the different combinations of sour yogurt and sweet vegetables, often accompanied by flaky pastry, that I found all over. The food was both fresh and comforting –worlds away from the heavy souvlakia sandwiches and moussaka that constituted Greek food in Astoria’s diners. But I’ve rarely cooked Greek inspired dinners at home, probably because I didn’t have a yia-yia to show me how. Which is why I took note when Couscous and Consciousness shared a recipe from Tessa Kiros’ Food From Many Greek Kitchens in a recent Weekend Cooking post, and ordered it from the library.

Who is Tessa Kiros? A European woman (mother from Finland, dad from Cyrus, born in London, now living in Italy) with an deep interest in the intersection of food and culture—which makes a lot of sense when you consider the intersection of fantastic cuisines she must have grown up with! She has written books addressing many aspects of her life – she is perhaps best known for her Nordic cookbook, Falling Cloudberries.

Take on Cooking: Traditional Greek home cooking, with an emphasis on regional specialties.

The Delicious Parts: This book is absolutely gorgeous – the sumptuous photos resemble a coffee table book about the Greek Islands. Kiros’ chapters don’t follow a traditional order – instead, they seem to reflect her thoughts on Greek food. The first four chapters explore Traditional Foods, Fasting Foods, Easter Foods and Shared Foods. The Greek Orthodox Church still observes a very strict fast during lent – no meat or eggs at all – so the Fasting Foods chapter was a natural source of vegetarian and vegan dishes.

My First Bites: I cooked four recipes from the book: Spanakopita (Spinach Pie), Tomatokeftedes (Fried Tomato Fritters), Spanakorizo (Spinach Rice) and Yiaourti (Yogurt on the Side). All of them were delicious. I actually used Kiros’ delicious Spanakopita filling in a simple phyllo pie, rather than make the individual rolls that she suggested, and everyone at the barbecue raved about it. My daughter inhaled the Spinach Rice – and it made a really delicious lunch later in the week, warmed up with the leftover Yiaourti.

Not Quite To My Taste: While I thought the flavors were fantastic, and the ingredients spot on, I did find myself modifying the cooking directions, adapting them to my modern kitchen. Some of the directions are complex — Kiros admits this herself – but as gorgeous as the book is, there are no illustrations of technique to help the reader through the difficult parts.

Recommendation? Devour, Split, Send it Back to the Kitchen? Devour or split, definitely – but I’d lean toward devour if you have a hole in your cookbook collection where a comprehensive guide to Greek cuisine belongs. I probably wouldn’t make many of the fussier, holiday-oriented recipes, but I can see making a great party out of the Mezedes (Shared Foods) section. I’d call it a great cookbook for a confident cook.

One Great Recipe: Tessa Kiros’ Spanakorizo

Spinach Rice

2 ½ pounds spinach, rinsed and drained (I used 12 oz baby spinach, and I thought the proportions were fine)

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 ½ ounces green onions, with some of the green, chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill (I used 3 teaspoons dried)

1 cup medium grain rice

Salt

Juice of 1 lemon

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

1) Coarsely chop the spinach leaves. Heat the olive oil in a very large pot and sauté the onions until pale gold and softened. Add the dill and sauté for 30 seconds or so then stir in the rice.

2) Now add the spinach. You might feel that it won’t all fit in the pot, but fit as much as you can. Add 2 cups of hot water and press down the spinach until it begins to wilt and it’s all in. Add a good amount of salt, turn the spinach over with a wooden spoon and put the lid on. Bring to a boil then turn through again. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes. If there is still water in the bottom of the pot toward the end of this time, take the lid off and turn up the heat to let it evaporate. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and add a few grinds of pepper. Turn through gently and taste for salt. Add the mint. Cover with a clean dish cloth, put the lid back on for 10 minutes to steam. Serve hot or even at room temperature.

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review. I borrowed it from the library.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Monday, September 9, 2013

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

I love how Neil Gaiman’s books find both magic and terror lurking in the most mundane places. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an introverted little boy finds a mystical world at a farmhouse just down a bumpy road from his house – a place of both wonder and fear. But more fabulous than the full moon that always shines on one side of the house to the little nameless boy who is the main character in the story is actually finding a friend, in the person of a strangely mature 11-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock.

The little boy meets Lettie and the other Hempstock women when his family car is used by a tenant to commit suicide on their property. This sad act sets off a chain of events that puts the little boy, his family, Lettie Hempstock and perhaps the whole world in danger. But in the background of all the harrowing activity is the absolute calm of the Hempstock farm, where Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock live in absolute harmony with nature: where the fires are cozier, the kittens are cuddlier and the food tastes better than anyplace on earth. Which makes the juxtaposition of good and evil in this book particularly jarring.

This story certainly bears some resemblance to Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book -- but definitely at an adult level. No children’s book could deal so forthrightly with a father’s attempt to murder his own son – or that same father’s entanglement with an evil nanny. Still, Gaiman brings so much whimsy to the characters that you find yourself lulled into a false sense of security – and then startled back into remembering this is not a “warm and fuzzy” tale. For example, after one near death experience, the young boy’s mind turns to spotted dick, a favorite dessert:

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock. p. 206

This is a unique story, despite the fact that the Hempstock women are reminiscent of the Fates –- life forms so old and powerful that even the Greek gods could not understand or sway them. But the similarities ended for me there. I absolutely couldn’t put this book down. I imagine many people will have this one on their R.I.P. VIII lists this year, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. Thanks so much to Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting!

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review. I borrowed the e-book from my public library.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

COOKED by Michael Pollan

Cooked by Michael Pollan has had me thinking about my food very seriously. I listened to the audiobook on a car trip the Midwest, driving through acres and acres of soybeans and corn – no doubt genetically modified, and almost all of it, apparently, meant for animals, not people. And even though it’s been almost two weeks since I finished it, I still keep going back to it as I’m wandering through the grocery store, packing my daughter’s lunch or planning our weekly dinner menu. Its implications really are that far-reaching.

The book is divided into four parts, representing both the four elements and the four food “transformations” he associates with them: fire (barbecue); water (braising); air (bread making); and earth (fermentation). The book isn’t a cookbook, although there are recipes. Rather, the book takes an ethno-biological look at human development, coming down on the side of humans not only being able to cook, but actually having developed the way we have because we cook. Seriously, you’ll never look at a loaf of store-bought bread the same way after reading this book. And that rule about hot food when traveling, especially to tropical destinations? There’s definitely a reason for that!

I have to admit, by the end of the barbecue section, I was wondering if I could ever enjoy meat (particularly pork) again – so little of it seems to be raised in the healthful way that Pollan says is possible. But my family is unwilling to give up meat completely. Luckily, we are blessed with a number of local, organic farmers in our area, and since reading the book I have been dealing with them exclusively for meat. The flavor is fantastic, but there is a definite downside. The costs are really high -- $30 for a large lamb shoulder yesterday, but I will no doubt get two meals from it. At those prices, meat will likely become a tiny portion of our weekly diet – another thing I wouldn’t call bad at all. And I’m sure Pollan wouldn’t either. I guess that’s the point.

Michael Pollan narrated the book. I liked his voice and his passion for the subject matter, which definitely comes through. But after listening, it’s easy to understand why he gets labeled an “elitist” so often. Seriously, my husband and I looked at each other blankly after he riffed for about 10 minutes on the drudgery of chopping onions. Really? That’s your big problem? You write for a living and have the time to spend a whole day perfecting your braising technique – not to mention kneading loaves of bread – and you’re complaining about chopping onions? I admit it – we just couldn’t help laughing at Pollan’s “First World” problems more than once while listening. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book or the importance of its message.

Many thanks to JoAnn at Lakeside Musing for her review – and for sharing this audiobook with me! We enjoyed it thoroughly – and it really made a loooong car trip far more enjoyable than it might have been.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Monday, September 2, 2013

THE RETURNED by Jason Mott

I should not read books about people who lose their children. It upsets me too much. Which is probably why the overwhelming emotion I felt after reading Jason Mott’s impressive and intense new novel, The Returned, was sadness, rather than the expected fear. But that’s okay, because the book was far more thought-provoking and rewarding than I had ever expected.

The premise of the novel is fantastic: What would happen if all over the world, the dead just decided not to be dead anymore? What if the people you’d loved and lost and grieved over most suddenly appeared at your door, in the same state as the last time you’d been with them? Would you welcome them home with open arms? Would you question their motives for returning – or even whether or not they were who they said they were? And what would the returned do, without homes and jobs and all the other things that the passage of time would have taken from them?

The novel begins with Harold and Lucille Hargrave facing that question exactly: their only son, lost in a drowning accident some 50 years ago when he was 8-years-old, is returned to their home by a federal agent after “returning” from death somewhere in China. (I have still not figured out the China angle– there wasn’t enough information to tell me whether or not Mott is making some claim about weird, super power science robbing the graves of their inhabitants. So that thread was a total loss for me.) Harold and Lucille immediately take him in, although they disagree about whether or not he is actually their son, or something else altogether. But what they don’t realize at the beginning is the absolute havoc the returning dead will wreak on their small Mississippi community – and the world in general.

At one point, Lucille spars with former friends from her town who have joined the anti-returned movement:

“I just want to know what your demands are, is all. All sit-ins have demands! You have to ask for something when you organize like this.” A soldier bumped into her by accident. He paused to apologize, then she continued on. “You’ve succeeded in disrupting things,“ Lucille said to Fred. “That’s plain. But what’s next? What’s your platform? What are you standing for?”

Fred’s eyes went full of light. He sat erect in his chair and inhaled a deep, dramatic breath. The other men followed his lead and sat straight as tombstones. “We stand for the living,” Fred said in a flat, even voice.

It was the slogan of the True Living Movement – those fools that Lucille and Harold had watched on television that day so long ago. The ones who’d gone from promises of race wars to full-on racial integration since the Returned. And now there was Fred quoting them.

Without a doubt, Lucille thought, nut jobbery was afoot. p. 179

Mott’s novel touches so many chords – about jealousy, about difference, about loss and forgiveness. But to my mind, it perfectly crystallizes the tragic circumstances faced by refugees around the globe. In fact, it is a meditation on the human ability to live far beyond what endurance should allow – and the aftermath of living outside the normal order of things. Left without their past lives, these refugees appear in a place that seems hospitable at first, is empathetic and even caring in the abstract – but becomes dangerous when the newcomers begin to impact and change the inhabitant’s previously ordered world. This book about returning dead, which I originally thought of as a creepy tale, really made me think about the plight of the Tamils and the Syrians and all the other groups of people who are forced from where they belong, and then must hope for the best from the places they wander into. How difficult it is to remake a life?

This book was very powerful, but I wouldn’t really call it scary, which was what I expected from the description. Still, the returning dead seem to make it a natural for the R.I.P. VIII Challenge – there’s plenty of suspense. And maybe others will see it as more “perilous” than I did. If the main story line hadn’t revolved around a lost child, it might have been a different story for me as well. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion, which is what you’ve got here. Thanks as always to Lisa for including me on the tour. For other opinions on this title, check the links here.

Friday, August 30, 2013

LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET by M.E. Braddon

When I joined The Classics Club, the first thing I did was go through the list on Kindle, to see which of the books were available for free or reduced fees. This is one of the great things about reading classics—many of those in the public domain are available at no cost for e-readers through the volunteers at Project Gutenberg. I figured I would load a couple of Kindle titles immediately so I didn’t waste any late night reading time, which is when I really enjoy using my Kindle. And one of the first items I loaded was M.E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Lucky for me, a night of insomnia led me to yet another unexpectedly enjoyable classic!

Lady Audley’s Secret is often described as the quintessential Victorian “sensation” novel, providing a glimpse into that tightly ordered world by examining what happens when its conventions are completely abandoned. The novel begins with the poor but beautiful Lucy Graham winning the heart of widower Lord Michael Audley. Formerly employed by the local doctor as a governess, Lucy’s life before coming to Essex is veiled in some sad mystery. Lord Audley adores spoiling his young and charming wife, hoping to make up for her past unhappiness, to the disgust of his own daughter Alicia (who happens to be about the same age as her new stepmother).

Meanwhile, back in London, presumptive heir to Lord Audley’s title barrister Robert Audley runs into a dear old friend, George Talboys, just richly returned from a gold-panning expedition to Australia, who is searching for the young and beautiful wife he abandoned in an attempt to change their dwindling fortunes. The fortunes were dwindling, I might add, because George’s father disinherited his son when he rashly chose to marry the beautiful but penniless Helen. Alas, just as George triumphantly returns to England, her death is announced in the papers, breaking his heart. But fate brings the many threads of the story together at Audley Court – until, of course, George Talboys mysteriously vanishes, and Robert is compelled to find out the meaning of his friend’s disappearance – no matter the cost to his beloved family.

I like to think of it as the Grandmother of every radio serial and soap opera ever produced –many of the motifs that pack this 300 page novel are still playing out on the airwaves and Internet today: revenge, doppelgangers, orphaned children, unscrupulous parents. I read that it was originally printed in installments, which explains why each chapter adds some information about Lucy’s past – and ends in some kind of cliffhanger. Reading it all together makes for quite a rollercoaster. The seven deadly sins get quite a workout in Lady Audley’s Secret, but as you’d expect from a Victorian novel, the heavenly virtues are also in evidence, drawing a very clear delineation of those who live within society’s boundaries, and those who live without. There’s also a healthy dose of the occult. For example, Alicia’s dog seems to have a preternatural fear of the new Lady Audley:

The Newfoundland rolled his eyes slowly round in the direction of the speaker, as if he understood every word that had been said. Lady Audley happened to enter the room at this very moment, and the animal cowered down by the side of his mistress with a suppressed grow. There was something in the manner of the dog which was, if anything, more indicative of terror than of fury; incredible as it appears that Caesar should be frightened by so fragile a creature as Lucy Audley.p. 72

I thoroughly enjoyed every frothy, overwrought minute of this novel. It was so true to its time period, yet edgy in its confrontation of social taboos. I had never even heard of Lady Audley’s Secret until, trying to expand beyond Elizabeth Gaskill, I looked up a list of female Victorian authors and found Mary Elizabeth (M.E.) Braddon. The book also appeared on the Manchester Guardian’s 1000 Books Everyone Must Read: The Definitive List. That’s a pretty bold claim for any list, and I certainly found some striking omissions (not surprisingly, the list is very English-centric), but I think it’s a fabulous resource, conveniently broken up into genre: comedy, crime, family and self, love, science fiction and fantasy, state of the nation, and war and travel. I will definitely be culling this list for more ideas for future challenges, as the recommendations so far have been outstanding.

This book counts as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much, and is my second book for The Classics Club. It was free for my Kindle, which keeps my total for that Challenge so far at $2.51. Since this is considered a crime genre classic, I am also linking it to the R.I.P. VIII Challenge, hosted by Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings, which started just a little bit early this year.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Welcome to the Perils of Fall: My R.I.P. VIII Challenge List

I’ve seen some sure signs that autumn will be cooling down the frenzied pace of summer very soon. The students have moved back into their dorms at the university. The leaves on the dogwood tree outside my kitchen window have already taken on a dull, red hue. And reading lists for the R.I.P. VIII (that’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril) Challenge, hosted once again this year by Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings, have begun to pop up around the blogosphere.

This year at least two of my titles will overlap with my Classics Club list – I love those 2-for-1 reads! I’ve narrowed it down to 5 novels I’d like to read so far, but I am waiting for two of them via interlibrary loan, so I will probably read whichever gets here first (thanks, Big 10).

Peril the First:
Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
The Returned by Jason Mott

And if all goes well, I will also try to participate in Peril of the Short Story, reading The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. But it’s a bit early to tell how that’s all going to go at this point.

I’m looking forward to chilling – and hopefully chilly – two months of reading. What’s on your R.I.P. list?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Green Beans to Quell the Inevitable Tomato Revolt

Sooner or later I know I'm going to hear it. “Just don’t make anything with tomatoes, please!”

At this point of the year, tomatoes, which were only five weeks ago the tantalizing taste of summer, have become something I can never quite believe they will turn into to when I’m craving them in the dead of winter. They’re boring. We’ve eaten them with salt, grilled them, tossed them, roasted them, stuffed them, layered them with mozzarella and basil, ratatouilled them, even canned 16 quarts of them! Inevitably, there comes a juncture in every summer where the girls get tomatoed out. And I have to think of something totally different to jump start their tired summer palates.

This year my inspiration to beat the Too-Many-Tomato Blues came in the form of some green beans, a couple of hot peppers and a fantastic bag of paprika that one of my students’ moms brought me from Hungary not too long ago. My original plan involved yogurt* – and I still think that would be an excellent (and let’s face it, lighter) choice. But seeing as my husband used the yogurt to make the chicken tenderloins, mayo became Plan B in my Eastern European green bean effort. I knew I had a winner on my hands when I asked my younger daughter to take a taste, and she went back for 4 green beans while she was supposed to be setting the table. After his taste, my husband actually told me to take a picture and write it down for the blog, which was a pretty big surprise. So on his recommendation, I’m sharing my totally inauthentic Hungarian green bean recipe – and there is not a tomato in sight!

Col’s Green Beans with Paprika Mayo

1 large onion, sliced
2 Hungarian wax peppers, seeded and cut in long slices
1 quart container fresh green beans
1 T grapeseed oil
3 T light mayo
1 t dried dill
1-2 t Hungarian paprika (hot or sweet, according to taste)
1 t sugar
Juice of half lemon
1 t cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Put the oil in a large, non-stick skillet on medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and green beans, stirring every few minutes to keep them from getting too dark on one side. After about 15-20 minutes, the onions will be dark, and the beans will be crisp tender.

2) While the beans are cooking, combine the rest of the ingredients together to make a thick sauce. When green beans are done, remove from heat for 1-2 minutes, then toss with paprika mayo, or simply serve the mayo on the side for dipping.

*If I had gone with the yogurt I probably wouldn't have needed all the acidity I did, so I'd taste before adding the lemon juice and vinegar.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Friday, August 16, 2013

DANGEROUS LIAISONS by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was not what I expected. I blame advertising.

Let me explain. I happen to be one of the seven people on the planet who has not seen the movie versions of Dangerous Liaisons. Not the one with John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, both of whom I esteem as actors. Not even the one with my movie crush Colin Firth, which was for some reason titled Valmont. But what I do remember seeing was ads for those versions. Bunches of them. And from those commercials I came away with the impression that the book would be somehow in the style of a “light opera.” I knew there would be naughty bits – the titillating trailers were clear there – but I had the impression that it would somehow be humorous. So I went into this first book for The Classics Club and Back to the Classics Challenges thinking I was going to get a slow start.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I was actually reading was a very dark explication of treachery, in so many different forms.

Dangerous Liaisons is an epistolary novel detailing the complex, sexually charged relationship between the Marquise de Merteuil, a beautiful widow leading a double life, and the Vicomte de Valmont, a well-connected roué. Former lovers, they share a frank enjoyment of seduction. The novel begins with the Marquise requesting Valmont’s help in humiliating her former lover, the Comte de Gercourt, by deflowering his convent school educated intended, Cécile Volanges. (The fact that Cécile is not only the daughter of her best friend, but also her cousin, doesn’t even register with the Marquise.) Valmont demurs, as he is already actively engaged in seducing the virtuous Présidente de Tourvel, but events later make him reconsider the conquest. However, by this point Cécile has already fallen in love with her music instructor, the Chevalier Danceny, considerably complicating an already complicated situation.

Although it was written in 1782, I found Dangerous Liaisons almost shockingly modern. At one point, the Marquise points out that Valmont’s supposed “skills” at seduction are really just the result of luck:

And, pray, what have you done that I have not surpassed a thousand times? You have seduced, ruined even, very many women: but what difficulties have you had to overcome? What obstacles to surmount? What merit lies therein that is really your own? A handsome face, the pure result of chance; graces, which habit almost always brings; wit, in truth: but jargon would supply its place at need; a praiseworthy impudence, perhaps due solely to the ease of your first successes; if I am not mistaken, these are your means, for, as for the celebrity you have succeeded in acquiring, you will not ask me, I suppose, to count for much the art of giving birth to a scandal or seizing the opportunity for one. p. 103-104

Happily, I enjoyed this book, despite my surprise at its darkness, as well as my inability to like most of the characters very much. Maybe it’s because I’m the mother of teenaged girls, but I found myself focusing on – and feeling very sorry for –Cécile. I was also angry at Danceny, who totally abandoned Cécile in the end – only Valmont seemed to notice that his behavior had not been so different from hers. The book certainly captures the double standard for sexual conduct that existed at the time. But I was disappointed we didn’t hear more from Cécile – her last letter comes well before the end, not allowing for her perspective on the climactic events of the novel.

You know you’ve really enjoyed a book when you find yourself thinking about it after you’ve finished. I found myself wondering what the reaction to this book must have been at the time. I even wondered if in describing society so frankly -- and amorally -- Dangerous Liaisons had helped contribute to the French Revolution. I heartily recommend this novel to anyone who thinks classics are “boring” – this will disabuse them of that idea from the first page. This was a great kick-off to my Classics Club Challenge, and counts for my 18th Century Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Sara Reads Too Much. I got this classic novel for my Kindle at the bargain price of $2.51 – I’ve decided to keep a running total for the 5-year challenge, mostly because I have the idea that reading classics should be good for the book budget! I’ll be updating the total on my Classics Club page as well.

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

LOTERÍA by Mario Alberto Zambrano

I’m sure I’m not the first person to call Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano “devastating” – after all, any book about a child we encounter when she’s already in the state protective custody system is bound to be that. So the issue wasn’t about whether or not this would be a sad story, but whether or not this would be a sad story with a unique point of view, a story that somehow opened us up to sadness in a new way. I’m not saying that would be easy, but then I didn’t take up the challenge, Zambrano did. And in my opinion he was somewhat successful, but not entirely.

The book is in the form of a journal written by Luz María Castillo while she is being held by the State of California. Her father is in jail, her mother has disappeared, and her sister is in the Intensive Care Unit. She refuses to speak with the people assigned to help her, but at her Tía Tencha’s request she writes a journal entry for each of the cards in the Mexican bingo game La Lotería that she just happens to be carrying with her. I found this a bit far-fetched, frankly. Not her naïve aunt believing her journal would clear her brother of the charges against him – that made sense – but of her casual suggestion to use the cards as prompts. It felt too much like a “literary device” to me.

What Zambrano does very well is get us into the head of an 11-year-old girl, however. Her love of her family, her inability to contextualize her parents’ behavior, and her sibling rivalry all come through beautifully. She isn’t the easiest child to get to know, and so her circuitous inner dialog makes sense. She has been through a lot:

We locked the door and held each other like if we were waiting for an earthquake, afraid the ceiling might cave in. A chair would slam against the wall and we’d flinch. Glasses would break. The walls would tremble. They’d scream so loud it felt like wolves were tearing up the house, saying words that didn’t even make sense anymore, and the sounds that did come out of their mouths were like dogs. p. 143-144.

But while Zambrano does write beautifully, I found Luz’s story to be a bit contrived. To be honest, I am getting pretty tired of every book I read having a scene with a young girl having some kind of sexual encounter. I think it’s a dangerous thing to make a real problem – sexual behavior toward children – some kind of literary trope. Modern authors seem to think there’s only one way to show that a woman has had a rough time of it. In this case, I really don’t think the encounter with Luz’s cousin moved the story forward at all – it didn’t lead to more understanding of the characters or of their actions. So I found it distracting, rather than insightful.

Zambrano is a very talented writer, and I do look forward to reading his future works. He has an opportunity to give a real voice to the Mexican-American experience, and with his obvious talent I believe as readers we’ll all be richer for it.

FTC Disclosure: I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other takes on Mario Alberto Zambrano's Lotería, please follow the links here. Thanks, as always, to Trish for including me on the tour!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

CHOCOLATE & ZUCCHINI by Clotilde Dusoulier

I’m not trying to complain or anything. I am very fortunate to get to travel a great deal, both for business and for pleasure – and often a little of both. Still, an enormous hole in my life-long travel itinerary remains: I have never been to Paris. This is particularly stunning when you consider: a) three items on my bucket list involve France; b) after food and books, perfume is my next favorite thing on the planet; and c) I adore French food and wine! Until I can get there, I have to content myself with the tastes of the country I’m dying to go to, so I’m always on the lookout for a great French cookbook, which is why I wanted to review Clotilde Dusoulier’s Chocolate & Zucchini.

Who is Clotilde Dusoulier? A young Parisian computer-programmer-turned-food-blogger, Dusoulier says that it took a move to San Francisco after college for her to realize exactly what the French approach to food meant to her. Now back in Paris, she is author of the wildly popular food blog Chocolate & Zucchini, which is coincidentally the name of her first cookbook.

Take on Cooking: Every day contemporary French is probably the best way to describe Chocolate & Zucchini. Dusoulier’s stories illustrate how food is completely intertwined with all aspects of life in Paris, which I love. Like many French people, her meals seem to be made up of a combination of things she buys (bread, when you’re in France why make your own?) and things she makes from scratch. It’s a very seasonal and fresh approach to food, not at all stuffy.

The Delicious Parts: I loved how Dusoulier talks about her boyfriend, her neighbors and her family, all of whom inspire her cooking. She is willing to mess with tradition when it makes things better – replacing butter on the mouillettes for dipping in soft boiled eggs with an artichoke and goat cheese spread was genius – but not when it doesn’t, so don’t go changing the pan bagnat. She has a good sense of humor. I especially loved the story about her bakery ruining her favorite turkey salad.

My First Bites: I cooked four recipes from the book: Green Bean Salad with Pecans and Dry-Cured Ham; Soft-Boiled Egg with Artichoke Bread Fingers; Lamb and Prune Meatballs; and Zucchini with Olives. My family loved them all. My daughter especially loved the soft-boiled egg, and I was glad to be reminded what a fantastic and simple meal one makes (add a salad or steamed asparagus to this and you’re done)! The recipes are detailed and direct – you really can’t mess them up.

Not Quite To My Taste: This is a wonderful little book, and my only complaint is that it is little – I really wish there were more recipes. But wanting another helping is hardly a criticism, so I guess the book was entirely to my taste.

Recommendation? Devour, Split, Send it Back to the Kitchen? Devour, definitely, if you are looking for a contemporary take on French food! And Split if you want to dip your toes in the water of French cuisine. One whole section of the book is on entertaining, and considering how straightforward the directions are, I’d say anyone could look like a whiz in the kitchen if they planned an event around her buffet items. I will be sorry to see this one go back to the library, but I’ve already added it to my Christmas List (hope Santa reads this blog).

One Great Recipe: Clotilde Dusoulier’s Courgettes aux Olives

Zucchini with Olives

1 ½ t. extra virgin olive oil

12 black olives, such as Kalamata, pitted and chopped

1 large onion, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ lbs. zucchini, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 t. herbes de Provence

1/3 c. dry white wine

1) Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add three of the olives (reserve the others) and cook for a minute, until fragrant. Add the onion and garlic and cook for four minutes, until softened, stirring regularly to avoid coloring. Add the zucchini, sprinkle with salt, pepper and herbes de Provence, and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.

2) Add the white wine and the reserved olives, and stir again. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook, uncovered, for 5 to 7 minutes, until most of the juices have evaporated. Serve hot, at room temperature, or cold.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review.

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Classics Club List

A number of the bloggers I follow are members of The Classics Club. I have actually wanted to join for a while, but found the idea of putting together a list of 50 books to read in 5 years very daunting. On the one hand, there are so many books to read. On the other hand, where to begin?

Feeling like I was missing a party I really wanted to attend, I finally hit on a two-part strategy. The first part of my list came from my existing TBR on Goodreads. That part of the list contains “classic” classics (if that’s a thing) that I just haven’t found time for – a.k.a., I wasn’t assigned – like Eliot’s Middlemarch and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

The second part came from an imprint that I absolutely love, and wanted to explore more thoroughly, NYRB Classics. I love this imprint because of its broad range: history, biography, memoir, mystery, humor, and romance are all represented. Because of the nature of the list, these books are more international in nature, decidedly modern, and maybe a bit more obscure, including titles such as Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel and Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love.

There are no re-reads on my list, which is a bit scary. A majority of the authors are completely new to me as well. But I feel like I will have accomplished something when I finally get through the list. Hopefully, that will be before August 5, 2018!

Col Reads’ Classic 50

1. Baker, Dorothy: Cassandra at the Wedding

2. Bengtsson, Frans G.: The Long Ships

3. Borges, Jorge Luis: Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi

4. Braddon, Mary Elizabeth: Lady Audley’s Secret

5. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop

6. Choderlos de Laclos, Pierre: Dangerous Liaisons

7. Collette: The Pure and Impure

8. Collodi, Carlo: Pinocchio

9. De Balzac, Honore: The Unknown Masterpiece

10. De Maupassant, Guy: Alien Hearts

11. Dundy, Elaine: The Dud Avocado

12. Edwards, G.B.: The Book of Ebeneezer Le Page

13. Eliot, George: Middlemarch

14. Eliot, T.S.: Murder in the Cathedral

15. Fearing, Kenneth: The Big Clock

16. Fermor, Patrick Leigh: The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands

17. Fielding, Henry: Tom Jones

18. Finley, F.I.: The World of Odysseus

19. Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby

20. Gadda, Carlo Emilio: That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana

21. Gaskell, Elizabeth: North and South

22. Gogol, Nikolay: Dead Souls

23. Grossman, Vasily: An Armenian Sketchbook

24. Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Blithedale Romance

25. Hemingway, Ernest: A Moveable Feast

26. Hughes, Richard: A High Wind in Jamaica

27. Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God

28. Inoue, Yasushi: Tun-Huang

29. Ishiguro, Kazuo: The Remains of the Day

30. Jansson, Tove: The True Deceiver

31. Kerouac, Jack: On the Road

32. Malory, Sir Thomas: Le Morte d’Arthur

33. Mitford, Jessica: Hons and Rebels

34. Mitford, Nancy: Voltaire in Love

35. Murakami, Haruki: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

36. Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita

37. Pepys, Samuel: Diary of Samuel Pepys

38. Pirandello, Luigi: The Late Mattia Pascal

39. Pym, Barbara: Excellent Women

40. Sabbatini, Rafael: Scaramouche

41. Simenon, Georges: Act of Passion

42. Sorokin, Vladimir: The Queue

43. Taylor, Elizabeth: Angel

44. Twain, Mark: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

45. Van Vechten, Carl: The Tiger in the House

46. Von Arnim, Elizabeth: The Enchanted April

47. Warner, Rex: Men and Gods

48. Wharton, Edith: Ghost Stories

49. White, T.H.: The Once and the Future King

50. Zola, Emile: The Belly of Paris

I'll be tracking my progress on a separate blog page. Right now the 0/50 has me pretty motivated to get moving on some classics!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

NIGELLA EXPRESS by Nigella Lawson

I had never seen Nigella Lawson on television until I went to England and Wales this summer. Exhausted from a conference – oh, and from running around London with a tween looking for Harry Potter filming locations – we were thrilled we could “veg out” in the evening with the Food Network UK. (Ah, the comfort. Ah, the bacon!) Our schedule (and jet lag) introduced us to two new-to-us shows: Nigella Kitchen and Bitchin’ Kitchen. Back home, I looked for accompanying cookbooks because my daughter had enjoyed the shows so much, and Nigella Express was the first one I saw. Which is why Nigella has the (dubious) distinction of being my first Rent Before Buying review.

Who is Nigella Lawson? Self-proclaimed “Domestic Goddess,” daughter of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain, and until this week the wife of the advertising-made bazillionaire Charles Saatchi. She is a self-taught cook, and her curvaceous appearance and flirtatious delivery helped to define what media critics refer to a “food porn.” Lawson is an icon in the UK, with a string of successful cookbooks and cooking series to her credit.

Take on Cooking: Nigella Express is Lawson’s ode to the busy working mom – someone she knows more than a little bit about, what with running a media empire and being a mother of three! It’s all about giving yourself a break and getting good tasting food on the table fast.

The Delicious Parts: The book is beautifully photographed, and Lawson’s personal stories make it an entertaining read. She comes across as down-to-earth but just a little bit edgy– kind of like the Anti-Martha Stewart. And Lawson has a real talent for putting together flavors that work well together. There’s plenty of spices and seasonings, with some unexpected combinations.

Not Quite To My Taste: The “express” part of the title comes with some shortcuts that we don’t usually use, including a lot of processed products –mixing jarred spaghetti sauce, broth and pasta for minestrone seems a bit too express, if you get my drift. Also, the “comfort food” aspect of the book meant that a lot of the recipes were very fatty. So I wound up adding steps and substituting ingredients to make meals for my family. The book is dessert heavy, because sweets are definitely Lawson’s thing – but we aren’t habitual dessert eaters, so a lot of the recipes would go unused (although I’m pretty sure my daughter would be happy if I used them).

Recommedation? Devour, Split, Send it Back to the Kitchen? For me, it’s a definite split—it’s going back to the library, and I don’t have to purchase it. But I can see why others would devour it, especially dessert lovers, and those looking for one cookbook with a broad set of recipes! I could see this as a great shower gift or new parent gift – perfect for someone not used to getting a meal together every night.

One Great Recipe: Nigella Lawson’s Curry in a Hurry

2 T. canola or other oil

3 T. finely chopped scallions

3-4 T. green Thai curry paste

2 ¼ lbs. chicken thigh fillets, cut into strips about 1 ½ inches by ¾ inch (I used considerably less, only about a pound, and for the four of us the proportions were fine)

1 14-oz can coconut milk

1 cup boiling water + enough chicken bouillon or concentrate to make 2 cups (I used veggie broth)

1 T. fish sauce

1 ½ cup frozen peas

1 ½ cup frozen edamame

1 ½ cup frozen slender beans (I used fresh because they are in season)

3 T. fresh cilantro

Cooked rice or noodles (I served this with a spicy chili rice)

Lime wedges

1) Heat the oil in a large saucepan, on that owns a lid, and drop in the scallions. Cook, stirring for a minute of two, and then add the curry paste.

2) Add the chicken pieces and keep turning over heat for 2 minutes before adding the coconut milk, stock, and fish sauce, and then the frozen peas and soybeans.

3) Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the frozen green beans and cook for 3-5 minutes.

4) Serve with rice or noodles, as wished, sprinkling over the cilantro as you do so. Put a plate of lime wedges for people to squeeze over as they eat.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review.