Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking Forward and Back on the Blogging Thing

For me, 2010 will definitely be remembered as the year I discovered blogging. Back in April, when I started Col Reads, my idea was pretty simple: I wanted a place for my reviews for the What's in a Name 3 Challenge. But clicking on a just a few links to read reviews turned into a far more interesting proposition, as I found other book bloggers with similar interests and tastes. Now reading book blogs and participating in memes is part of my weekly routine, and for the most part it's been very rewarding -- especially meeting so many wonderful, bookish people.

With 2011 looming, I took a little break last week to enjoy time with my family and friends. I've also been thinking about what I wanted to do with this little piece of internet real estate in the coming year. Here are some plans:

More and shorter reviews: Some books deserve a long review -- others, not so much. I'm going to try for pithy this year, rather than comprehensive.

More creativity: I think I'm going to work on the look of the blog. Sounds like a summer project, but it's on my mind.

More adventure: I've joined a number of challenges that will push me to read from different literary traditions. Some of the best books I read in 2010 were not ones I would have picked up on my own. But Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge introduced me to Kitchen. Amy's Scandinavian Challenge introduced me to The Summer Book. I'm looking forward to more of those "a-ha" moments this year.

Less pressure: This is for fun. I have a day job. If blogging becomes a chore, why do it?

With all that in mind, here's the current Challenge Line-up (complete book plans are in the Reading Challenges tab). I'll probably add a few more as the year goes on. Looks like a lot, but I'm only doing a few books in each!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Must-Have Cookie Map of My Life: Virtual Advent Tour 2010

To say that my mom is not a cook is a bit of an understatement. (I have a cousin who suggests that the EPA asks my mom to file an environmental impact statement before she enters her kitchen, but this is a scurrilous falsehood.) The truth is, my mother can cook, and the few things she makes well are really quite delicious -- she makes her own manicotti crepes, for goodness sake! The thing is, my mother usually doesn't choose to cook. Which is why the two bakers I knew best growing up on Long Island were Stella D'Oro and Entenmann's.

So how did cookie-baking come to mean "Christmas" to me? I can trace it precisely to a day while I was at Georgetown, when I grumpily mentioned to my roommate that it didn't feel like the holidays because I couldn't get Stella D'Oro Pfeffeneusses in Washington, DC. Her stunning response changed my Christmas perspective: "Why don't you just bake some, Col?"

Make Pfeffeneuses? She had to be kidding! But eager to avoid whatever paper was due next, I pulled out the only cookbook I owned, a battered, red and white checked copy of The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, and checked the Index. What do you know? Pfeffeneuses. Better yet, we had almost all the ingredients on hand. Paper avoidance could continue for another hour or so! I decided to give home made Pfeffeneuses a try. Needless to say, our ravenous student friends were happy to scarf the cookies down. And the rest, as they say, has become my own little family history.

Pfeffeneueses were my standard Christmas cookie for years -- it wasn't Christmas until I baked a batch. When I met Lee, I shared my Pfeffeneusse tradition. But he's really not a big fan of the cookie's "warm" spices. So when we got married, I added a plain butter cookie to the pre-Christmas baking. Two must-have cookies.

When our oldest daughter was a toddler, our two cookies seemed fine. But then she went to pre-school and experienced her first cookie exchange. The colors! The variety! The Spritz Christmas trees were the most amazing things she had ever seen. Wouldn't it be fun to try and make them ourselves? A cookie press was purchased, colored sugar as well. Three must-have cookies.

Our second daughter was a toddler when I learned about the Brown Bag Cookie company. An article in a gourmet magazine sent me to the Internet, where I was able to acquire some of Lucy's collectible Christmas molds. One of my fondest memories of my littlest girl is of watching her face when Santa's toy-laden sleigh came out of the oven in perfect cookie form. Four must-have cookies.

You get the idea. As a refugee from New York, I have added some things to the list that I could easily get there, but can't buy here -- rugelach and Linzer tarts taste like "home" to me. Family travels and friends have introduced other cookies to the mix. This year, as the girls made their cookie list, reviewing past creations and new possibilities, they arrived at a new cookie total: 11 must-have cookies! The favorites can't be discarded, but who wouldn't want to try the pink confection laced with crushed up candy canes found by one of the girls? So eleven cookies it is.

At this time of year, our house is filled with the sweet smells of cookie-baking more often than not. And each recipe makes me think of a particular time and place in my very lucky, very blessed life. I hope that my girls will have the chance to share this Christmas cookie tradition with their own daughters some day. But even if they don't come to share my cookie-baking passion, I hope that when they pass the Stella D'Oro Pfeffeneusses in the cookie aisle, they'll think of family, and all the fun we've had in the kitchen together. I can't pass the Entenmann's display without thinking of my own mom!

Wishing you the sweetest of holiday seasons, with many thanks to Marg and Kailana for hosting this wonderful Virtual Advent Tour! I have enjoyed reading so many of the posts from around the world!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Persephone Secret Santa Revealed: Or, How Bellezza Sent the Perfect Book

This is what Christmas is supposed to feel like! I got a wonderful surprise, but it was just what I wanted. It isn't too shocking though, since my Secret Santa is one of the few (and highly valued) followers of my little book blog: the wonderful Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza.

(Here's the back story. I only started my book blog because I wanted to participate in the "What's in a Name 3" reading challenge. Looking for inspiration to complete my categories, I clicked on a link to one of Bellezza's reviews. Hers was the first blog I ever followed, and since then I have enjoyed some wonderful book (and life) discussions with her. So it's pretty fun that Claire of Paperback Reader linked us up!)

Bellezza sent me Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Painter-Downes. It was a fabulous choice. Social history is a favorite genre of mine -- little known fact in the blogosphere, as an undergraduate I was a History major, although I study Communications now. In fact, the only other Persephone Book I had read before this year was A London Child of the 1870s, another autobiographical account of a woman's life in England. I cannot wait until my grading is done and I can dive into this book!

So a million thanks to Bellezza for finding the perfect present, and to Claire Boyle at Paperback Reader for hosting this year's Persephone Secret Santa event!

I haven't heard from my own Santee yet -- the book I sent had a LONG way to travel, so I sent it very early. I hope to read that it has arrived safely somewhere in the Pacific sometime tomorrow! [UPDATE: I have heard from my Santee, and she got the book I was so worried about -- Yeah! It was a pleasure and a challenge to find a new book for someone who's read as many Persephone titles as Mrs. B at The Literary Stew, and I'm looking forward to reading her review of The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens.]

Sending Happy Holiday wishes from beautiful Happy Valley, Pennsylvania!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Astrid & Veronika: A Character Connection

It was not a good idea to read Astrid and Veronika on a plane. Especially sitting next to a stranger. Especially with a colleague dozing a few rows ahead of me. Honestly, by the time I landed in Albuquerque I had cried sad tears, happy tears, hopeful tears and disappointed tears. I was a puffy, sappy mess by the time I exited the aircraft. Linda Olsson’s book wrung me out. That’s mostly because in Astrid Mattson, Olsson has created one of the most surprising characters I have come across in a while. Which is why I decided to review this book with a Character Connection.

When we first meet the solitary Astrid, she is in a quandary: something is definitely wrong at her new neighbor’s house, but she’s sidelined herself from society for such a long time that she doesn’t really know what to do about it.
Astrid could no longer sleep. She wandered between her room and the kitchen, coffee mug in hand. The car was still in the same place. She couldn’t have left. Yet there was no sign of life. She means nothing to me, she told herself. I know nothing about her. I have no business intruding. (p. 14)
Astrid’s humanity conquers her reticence, however, and she finally makes her way to Veronika’s door:
When the door opened and she stood face to face with the young woman, she realised that life had irrevocably returned. She cared. (p. 15)
Because of this choice, this singular act of reaching out to another human being in need, the eighty-year-old Astrid is eventually able to reclaim a part of her life. With the decision to help comes a kind of absolution, and Veronika, a young writer with her own sadnesses to escape, acts as Astrid’s confessor. And with every secret she reveals, Astrid’s character comes more into focus.

Up to the point where she meets Veronika, Astrid’s life has been almost entirely defined by her relationships with two men: her father and her husband. Both are destructive, malevolent forces, and Astrid’s bitterness remains, even when they are both out of her life forever:
“When my father died, I cut up all his clothes and started to weave. When my husband was taken to the rest-home, I began on his.” Astrid stepped onto one of the rugs and let the sole of her foot rub against it. “It gives me pleasure to walk on them,” she said. (p. 56)
But as the book progresses, Astrid learns that she does have control over her reactions to her past. Each secret she reveals to Veronika is a part of herself she can finally face and accept. Her final letter to Veronika crystallizes her understanding of her life and her hard-won philosophy of community. It was one of the most inspirational passages I have read in a very long time, a kind of manifesto for sisterhood. Which is why I cried. Uncontrollably. Astrid is truly unforgettable.

This book will make you reflect on the relationships that have defined your life – the short ones and the long ones. I would recommend it to readers of literary and world fiction, especially those who appreciate a feminist perspective.

This finishes The Black Sheep Dances’ Scandinavian Reading Challenge. I am so happy I participated – I have found two of my favorite books of the year (and maybe of all time) through the challenge! Thanks, Amy, both for hosting the challenge and for the book recommendation! And thanks to Jen at The Introverted Reader for hosting Character Connection. If you’ve never participated in that meme, you don’t know what you’re missing.

I'm Leeswammes' Guest for Book Bloggers Abroad!

Well, the end of the semester chaos has obviously kept me from my blogging "duties" for the past few weeks! But like most academics, if you give me a deadline I will do my best to meet it -- so I did manage to put together a guest blog -- on book blogging -- for Judith at Leeswammes. Judith blogs world literary fiction in the Netherlands, which is why I qualify as a "Book Blogger Abroad" over there.

With two trips to the Southwest in three weeks, I was able to read FOUR books, and blog ZERO. But I finished classes yesterday (Hip, Hip, Hooray!) and I plan to catch up in the next few days. New Year's Resolutions are looming, and finding time for more regular posts is definitely going to be at the top of my list for 2011. In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season -- I actually feel like my holiday season is finally beginning!

Thanks to Leeswammes for sponsoring Book Bloggers Abroad, and especially for asking this newbie to participate!

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wordy Shipmates: In Defense of Puritan Roots*

Sarah Vowell is about as good a feature writer as anyone in journalism today. I have always enjoyed her essays for PBS’s This American Life, because she has a real knack for tying together history and modern culture. So when I was wandering through Pattee Library’s lovely new leisure reading room at the beginning of November and saw her latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, with its cute little Puritan (definitely not Pilgrim, but more on that later) dolls on the cover, I grabbed it off the easel on impulse for a light Thanksgiving read. Impulse books are always a bit of a risk, but this time I feel like I got pretty lucky.

At the heart of The Wordy Shipmates is John Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which was delivered just before his little band of true-believing Puritans lost patience with the slow pace of reforms in the Church of England, and decided they’d rather carve out an existence on a wild, snowy bog – a.k.a. Boston – than endure any more of Archbishop Laud’s “popery.” (Never mind that the Pope hadn’t done much more than ritually excommunicate Englishmen in more than a hundred years – these Calvinists knew “popery” when they saw it – or smelled it, if the incense was burning.) Vowell uses this sermon as a launching pad for discussions on a wide range of topics, including Pilgrim kitsch, separation of Church and State, the Reagan Revolution and women’s healing gardens.

Vowell’s TAL essays generally run the listener through a gamut of emotions, moving almost effortlessly from sadness to amusement to anxiety, and the book’s extended format allows her to develop her ideas at a slower pace than on radio. I found the results here mixed – some of the sidepieces didn’t hold together as well as others. In one of the truly moving portions of the book, Vowell explains how “A Model of Christian Charity” became the focus of her book:
I would never answer with the honest truth. Namely, that in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant. (page 52)
The juxtaposition of the long past and the recent past is striking, and Vowell does a great job of tracing and clarifying the country’s Puritan roots. She is also quick to point out how far the country has come from those roots, especially in terms of dissent, which in Puritan Massachusetts took the forms of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Frankly, I will never be able to drive on the Hutchinson Parkway again without sticking my figurative tongue out at that big bully Winthrop!

This is a book with a focus on minutia – as Vowell herself points out, 17th century religion was based on tiny differences of interpretation. If you’re yearning to know why a Pilgrim isn’t a Puritan, this is your book. What was missing, to my mind, was the comic relief – and chapters. The comic relief would have thrown the historical and modern portions of the book into sharper contrast, I think. And chapters – well, they might have provided a bit more structure to the essay.

If you need some kind of linearity in your books, this one definitely isn’t for you! However, I’d absolutely recommend this book to history lovers and fans of This American Life. Also, to popular culture observers. It’s enjoyable, and factual without being heavy.

*Yes, this was supposed to be my Thanksgiving post. Didn't happen. Still a good book.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Back from Tucson, with a Gray Christmas from Persephone on my mind

There is nothing better than a surprise in the mail -- even if you know it's on the way. So what a thrill to come home from a week in Tucson late last night and find a white bubble envelope from London. My Persephone book, compliments of my Secret Santa, had arrived!

This is so much fun. I usually know exactly what I'm getting for Christmas (let's just say my darling husband prefers VERY specific instructions), but in this case, I have no clue what the title might be, or who got my name. I have been talking to my daughter about how much I dislike a commercial from a certain luxury car manufacturer indicating that a $70,000 car is the perfect Christmas gift -- it seems so out of step with the times, and my mood. And looking at this package, I know I'm right -- a book is a small, wonderful, personal gift, and I wouldn't be more excited about a box from Sachs Fifth Avenue than I am about this small, white envelope.

No, I haven't opened it yet -- I admit, I was going to open the mailing package, but when I turned it over, a handwritten note reminded me, "For Christmas." So I'm in a quandry. Should I open the envelope and see what's inside? I'm not sure if there are any additional clues in there.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A frustrating time with Monica Ali's In the Kitchen

I do not write many negative book reviews. This is not because I don’t have strong opinions (I think that Jess over at Desperado Penguin, who also just happened to be the maid-of-honor at my wedding, will back me up on this—remember what became of the tropical flowers, Jess?). Rather, it’s because leisure reading is a gift I give myself, and I rarely stick with a book that I’m not enjoying.

So what to make of my mixed feelings about Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen? It has lots of elements I like in a novel – skillful use of language, food-related story, quirky characters, multicultural vibe. I didn’t give up on it. But I can’t really say that I liked it in the end. It was very promising, so I stuck with it, stuck with it, and then – not so much in the gratification department. Hmmm.

Maybe it’s because I – like the author, I think – didn’t ever warm up to the main character, Gabriel Lightfoot, a solid but uninspired chef, bitterly watching food celebrities set London’s culinary agenda. As Gabe surveys his life, this is what he sees:
You couldn’t go around tearing basil leaves and swooning with pleasure all day. He had no debts, he wasn’t an alcoholic, he didn’t take drugs, he didn’t live on sugar sandwiches and Coke, and he had come this far without bankruptcy, coronaries, divorce, or psychotic breaks. Looking sideways (for what man is strong enough to resist?), he could say that things were not too bad. (iPhone location 1423-1430)

Sadly, what Gabe fails to realize is that he’s committed no major screw ups because he’s followed no great passions. You have to try to fail, and Gabe refuses to try. No guts, no glory; no rain, no rainbows. I found it impossible to like a character who defined himself by what he wasn't.

Gabe is caught between Old Britain, represented by his father, a retired textile worker, and New Britain, represented by the crew of the upscale, hotel-based kitchen he runs, but he doesn’t really seem to embrace either world. His personal life, in the form of a long-suffering girlfriend, is on hold while he waits for his “big break,” the financing of his own restaurant by a mercenary pair of backers: a self-made millionaire and a semi-shady MP. Playing it safely seems to have gotten him just where he wants to be, when the accidental death of a kitchen worker sends a ripple through the pond of his well ordered life that disrupts all his plans by exposing his carefully concealed weaknesses.

Sounds good so far, right? And it should be. But the characters never developed in a way that made me care about them. The back story, especially the part involving his parents’ relationship, developed too slowly. Ali certainly did her homework, but the minutia of mills and even kitchens dragged on far too long for my taste. Gabe is a lousy son, a lousy uncle, a lousy boyfriend, a lousy restaurateur, and even a lousy paramour. So when Ali finally clued me in on the abrupt devolution of his mental state, I just didn’t have enough invested in the character to feel much sympathy for him. I guess that’s why I felt so oddly deflated when I was finished reading the book: not angry, not sad, just empty.

I think others with more patience might enjoy this book far more than I did. Ali can really pack a sentence with meaning, which is one of the reasons I kept on reading. I would love to see what she does with a character she really likes, so I would definitely give her work another try. But I can’t really recommend In the Kitchen to the foodie crowd or the literary fiction crowd without a strong warning: Frustration Ahead! Enter at your own risk.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Map of Love: Exploring a Heart Without Borders

“May you enter favored, and leave beloved.”

Isn’t that a beautiful wish for a traveler? Think about it: may you be happy in your life, bring your good fortune with you to the places in which you journey, and share your gifts so wisely and well that you are missed when it’s time for you to return home. I absolutely love that. Ahdaf Soueif quotes this ancient Egyptian prayer in The Map of Love, which offers the reader two tales of intercultural love in Egypt, one in the late 19th century, and the other at the end of the 20th century. And to me it crystallizes the sentiment of the Egyptian people that Soueif describes in this beautiful novel: open and welcoming, and willing to take strangers into their hearts and homes, yet fearful of being taken advantage of in their hospitality.

This is a complex novel, with politics firmly woven into both of the love stories. The 19th century story of Anna Winterbourne and Sharif, told through diaries and letters, focuses on the difficulties of a romance between members of a conquering and conquered people, and deals head on with issues of racism and imperialism during the British occupation. The modern story (in my opinion, the weaker of the two) echoes the themes of the first, set against the complications of the Islamic Fundamentalist movement – as it turns out, just before September 11 (the book was published in 1999).

I really liked the novel, but I did have some problems with it. Anna Winterbourne was just a tad too virtuous for my tastes. While I appreciated her openness to the culture in which she found herself, I had a hard time believing the transition to the haremlek (the woman’s part of the Egyptian house) could be so seamless – a new bride just moves into her mother-in-law’s house, a mother-in-law with whom she shares no common language at the beginning, and there’s no tension to report? Yes, there is one cultural skirmish that causes an argument between the newlyweds, but it seemed completely trivial – most newlyweds have a good deal of adjusting to do, and they’re not usually trying to bridge an enormous cultural divide! The modern story took a very strange turn into a theme that is becoming almost banal in modern novels, and by that I mean incest. Frankly, this is a very serious subject, and the author just seemed to toss in this possibility without ever resolving it, in a way that I considered most cavalier. That was a disappointment, because for the most part the book is beautifully written.

As Soueif points out, the Egyptians have plenty of reasons to be wary of strangers. Egypt’s rich agricultural base and storied history have made it an object of desire for expanding civilizations since the Hittites. It’s easy to see how the outsiders’ veneration of Egyptian culture could eventually serve to dismantle the structure of the very civilization they admire so much. And yet, Soueif’s novel suggests Egypt remains a place where people are open to outsiders, even while they struggle to define themselves as a nation. This book reminded me of how very much I have always wanted to go to Egypt. I would recommend it for those who love literary fiction, especially those who are interested in Middle Eastern history and politics.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Belated but very grateful: The Princess Bride Wrap-up

Not an excuse, but an explanation: I have been sick with a miserable cold and unfortunately too busy at work to take any time to heal (mid-terms, guest lectures, and letters of recommendation adding to my usual crazy schedule). So while I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying The Princess Bride Milestones, I have not found the energy for a blog post. Solution: Today I’m going to wrap up with my take on the last three Milestones, an unorthodox approach, but one that I hope will bring me some satisfaction – this reading thing is supposed to be fun, not stressful, after all! So here goes:

Milestones 3 and 4: In which the movie as most of us know it takes place, but way better

The Princess Bride is an “ensemble” film, peopled with supporting characters, but none truly “starring.” Yes, Buttercup and Westley’s love story is the central focus of the film, but it serves to tether the fine character performances to the script, rather than to dominate the action. The calculus of the book is quite different, however, and with fewer time-oriented constraints Goldman fleshed out some of the movie’s most colorful characters. This is why the best part of the book for me has definitely been the development of Inigo and Fezzik.

Inigo and Fezzik’s terrifying trip through the Zoo of Death was the best part of the book that didn’t make it into the movie. As they descend toward Westley, every level is booby-trapped with a menagerie of monstrous creature encounters, each of which tests a different skill. Fezzik and Inigo must prod each other through the levels, bickering and rhyming as they go.

Fezzik got up and lumbered after him, saying, “Inigo, listen, I made a mistake before, you didn’t lie to me, you tricked me, and father always said tricking was fine, so I’m not mad at you anymore, and is that all right with you? It’s all right with me.”

They turned the knob on the door at the bottom of the black stairs and stepped onto the fourth level.

Inigo looked at him. “You mean you’ll forgive me completely for saving your life if I completely forgive you for saving mine?”

“You’re my friend, my only one.”

“Pathetic, that’s what we are,” Inigo said.


After the Zoo of Death, the book was almost entirely familiar to those who had seen the movie: Miracle Max; the holocaust cloak; Buttercup’s unwelcome wedding; Inigo’s revenge on the evil Rugen; Westley’s outwitting of the slimy Humperdinck; and Fezzik’s rescue with four white horses. Only in the book, even Buttercup helps with the rescue, using her unwanted royal status to get the four past the brute squad.

Milestone 5: In which we almost get a love scene, and Fezzik is possessed

I have no idea what to make of the “first chapter” of Buttercup’s Baby. Here are the highlights of my inner rant while reading this section:

What the heck does Stephen King have to do with anything? Thank goodness Westley and Buttercup finally seem a bit "interested" in one another! Is Goldman really stuck on the sequel? One thing that the Introduction made clear was Goldman’s fondness for Andre the Giant who played Fezzik. I find it easy to believe that he planned a larger role for him in a sequel. But channeling some ancient midwife to perform Caesareans in caves? Stephen King playing Florinese kingmaker?

I could not wrap my head around it. Too much Goldman, not enough Baby. No wonder the second book has never been finished.

Did I like the book? Yes, very much. The only problem for me was its familiarity. I am not one to re-read books, although I can watch beloved movies over and over again. And I’ve seen the movie so many times, know so much of the dialog by heart in fact, that the book just held very few surprises. Still, I’m glad I read it, just to get to know Fezzik and Inigo better. As for the sequel, if this is where it’s headed, I’d suggest Goldman give up: his magnum opus is complete.

Many thanks to Chris at chrisbookarama for hosting this readalong. It was a pleasure reading everyone’s comments!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Col Cooks: Fig and Almond Bread

Reading The Map of Love made me realize I had no idea what Egyptian food was like. The book richly describes many aspects of life in a haremlek, but neglects to describe the food created in Egyptian kitchens in much detail. Maybe that’s because the author, Ahdaf Soueif, is herself Egyptian, and doesn’t think of the cuisine as exotic. But I kept thinking about being a new bride in a completely different culture, and I wondered what the aromas and flavors of an Egyptian home would be like, which resulted in a few hours of really fascinating Internet research (another thing I really like to do when I ought to be grading). The ingredients were wandering through my head when I realized I needed to make a dish for a party, and I came up with a quick bread that included the flavors of a traditional Egyptian dessert, fig and honey cakes.

Map of Love Fig and Almond Bread

2 c. flour
½ c. sugar
1 ½ t. baking powder
½ t. baking soda
½ t. salt
½ t. cinnamon
4 T. butter
½ c. apple juice
¼ c. honey
½ t. almond extract
1 egg
8 figs (cut into about 8 pieces each)
½ c. toasted slivered almonds

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Mix dry ingredients in a food processor. Cut butter into the flour by pulsing, just until no chunks of butter can be seen. Place mixture in a mixing bowl.
3. Combine juice, honey, almond extract and egg. Stir into dry ingredients with a spatula, just until everything is moist. Fold in the figs and toasted almonds.
4. Pour batter into a 9 x 5 loaf pan. Bake for about an hour, turning the temperature down to 325 at 45 minutes (to keep the top from getting too dark), until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
5. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before removing from pan.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and 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.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Elementary, my dear Mummy-ji: The Case of the Missing Servant

The only thing that will clear Vish Puri’s client of murder is a task that would daunt Sherlock Holmes himself: find one woman with an unknown last name on the whole of the Indian sub-continent. But then Sherlock Holmes could never have imagined the exhaustive knowledge India’s most private investigator has of the country’s customs, cultures and people. Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, the first of the Vish Puri mysteries, introduces readers to the amazing deductive powers of the detective known to his friends as “Chubby,” along with the characters and technologies that make his business a success.

Puri is a traditional man living in a changing world, modern-day New Delhi. But that’s not to say that he’s out of touch. The description of his office evokes his respect for the past and the present:
The room’s focal point, however, was the shrine in the far corner. Two portraits hung above it, both of the draped in strings of fresh marigolds. The first was a likeness of Puri’s guru, the philosopher-statesman, Chanakya, who lived three hundred years before Christ and founded the arts of espionage and investigation. The second was a photograph of the detective’s late father, Om Chander Puri, posing in his police uniform on the day in 1963 when he was made a detective. (p. 14)

In fact, Hall’s genius is in his understanding that while the façade of India is transforming, the soul of the country remains very much the same. Puri capitalizes on both his knowledge of New India – BPOs, love marriages, real estate millionaires – and his intimate understanding of the old – the Arthashastra, hijras, tribal societies – to solve his cases.

Along with Puri, whose mustaches and self-satisfaction reminded me of Hercule Poirot, Hall offers up a cast of offbeat and mostly likeable characters, including Facecream, the agency’s intrepid female operative, Rinku, the slightly shady best friend from Puri’s youth, and Mummy-ji, the detective’s indomitable, sleuthing mother. I imagine these characters will take on even greater roles as the series develops.

From my reading of the first book in each series, I would say that there are a lot of similarities between the Vish Puri mysteries and those of another British ex-pat writing about murder and mayhem in a former colony, namely Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Both series feature detectives working in traditional, polyglot societies that are in a state of rapid development. Both series are written by men who clearly have an intimate knowledge of the culture, although they are not members of it. Both shy away from vogue goriness and focus on the cerebral aspects of detective work. I have enjoyed the first books in both of these series, and would recommend them to mystery lovers (especially lovers of old-style mysteries), and those who love to read books about other cultures.

But honestly, the cultural scholar in me wonders about how well these cultural observers are doing. How would an Indian react to Vish Puri or a Botswanan to Precious Ramotswe? Have these characters been “Anglicized for my protection?” That’s what I can’t know. (As a New Yorker, I sense “outsider” as soon as an author has a “Brooklynite” put ketchup on a hot dog – for god’s sake, who would do such a thing? The author must be from Kansas, I think.) So I’d love to hear from anyone in India or Africa that has read these books. How well have the outsiders captured the cultures for those of us who can only dream of going to such places? It doesn’t make the mysteries any less enjoyable, but it would be nice to know.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Read A Myth: In which our heroine takes on another challenge and hopes you will join her, because it looks like fun!

All I can say is thanks, Bellezza dear!

Having already committed (emotionally, at least) to two 2011 challenges (Beth Fish Reads' What's in a Name 4, because version 3 was my first-ever challenge, and Black Sheep Dances' Eastern European Challenge, which hasn't even been announced yet but sounds so interesting I can't wait to join), I had decided I was going to eschew other challenges and chart my own reading course come January 1.

Not so fast! Yesterday, Bellezza announced she was joining the Read A Myth Challenge. She was so excited I had to investigate. An entire year to read a flexible number of books, based on the myths from cultures of your choice! Academic literature is encouraged. The button features Artemis, my daughter's favorite goddess (and her Halloween costume, as it turns out). I started to do a little research and suddenly the possibilities were amazing - in a fit of enthusiasm I signed on the dotted line!

Here's where my list stands so far:

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
Prince of Ayodha, Ashkor Banker
Psyche in a Dress,Francesca Lia Block
The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso
Goddess of Yesterday, Caroline Cooney
Runemarks, Joanne Harris

I'll need one more to reach Level 4, but I'm assuming I'll get plenty of ideas as others begin to log their books! Maybe something based on the myths of Egypt?

If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Princess Bride: Milestone 2

Okay, now we're getting somewhere!

* Spoiler Alert -- If you haven't read The Princess Bride, or seen the movie, you probably don't want to read further*

In this week's reading, "The Announcement," Buttercup is engaged to the (I think pretty evil) Prince Humperdinck, taught to be a princess (but that isn't one of the "good parts," so Goldman claims to have cut it out), kidnapped by Vizzini, Inigo and Fezzik (who plan to kill her on the Guilder frontier), and liberated from her kidnappers by the even-more-frightening Man in Black.

The Man in Black, it turns out, is Westley, who has returned to Florin as the Dread Pirate Roberts to save Buttercup. The dialogue in this section is wonderful, as Westley takes on each of the members of the villianous trio, besting Inigo at swordplay, besting Fezzik in brute strength, and besting Vizzini at a battle of wits. So funny. So clever. So quick. This section reminded me why I loved the movie so much in the first place.

But it's even better than that, because this section offers something the movie didn't - the backstory on two of literature's most endearing felons: Inigo and Fezzik. We come to understand how these men turned to a life of crime, which actually matters, because reconciling the characters at the beginning of the story (where they conspire to murder Buttercup) and at the end (where they ultimately join forces with the Man in Black) has always been a weakness of the story as far as I was concerned.

And then comes the Fire Swamp - again, the book helps us understand how Westley comes to make the tactical error of wandering into it, even as we know his considerable skills will get him and Buttercup through. The end of the reading is sad, as Humperdinck bundles Buttercup back to Florin, and Westley is taken prisoner by the evil Count Rugen.

With this week's reading, Goldman has made good on his title promise of "true love and high adventure." I am hooked, and eager to read on!

Thanks again to Chris at Chrisbookarama for hosting this readalong!

The Woman in White and The Thirteenth Tale: Twin Peril Reviews

This was a doppelganger kind of peril week, reading-wise.

I finally finished Wilkie Collins’ Gothic novel classic, The Woman in White. And since Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is actually an homage to Wilkie Collins –the text mentions The Woman in White more than once – I thought it would be fun to put my reviews of these two Gothic novels together. (Get it? Twin reviews? Doppelgangers? Nice device for catching up on the reviewing, right?)

Let’s start at the beginning, because Collins’ novel is seminal to the Gothic literature genre. The Woman in White uses multiple narrators – akin to “witnesses” at a trial – to tell the strange story of the wealthy and beautiful Laura Fairlie of Limmeridge House. She and her “body double,” Anne Catherick, both have the unfortunate luck to wind up in the path of the handsome but evil Sir Percival Glyde, who somehow extracted a promise for Laura’s hand in marriage from her dying father. Walter Hartright (no subtlety there, as he is the one with the “true heart”), Laura’s drawing master and would-be lover, leaves Limmeridge at her half-sister Marian’s urging when the unwanted engagement takes place. When Laura Fairlie’s death is announced, and Anne Catherick is “returned” to the private insane asylum from which Hartright unwittingly helped her escape at the beginning of the novel, Hartright and Marian must use all their intellect and resources to untangle the web of lies and blackmails that have put Limmeridge in Glyde’s grubby paws.

There is a reason that The Woman in White has become a Gothic archetype: it’s a great mystery. But it suffers, over time, like so many Victorian novels, from both its sheer length and the bland, intellectually unfettered beauty of the main character. (The smart girl in the novel, half-sister Marian Holcombe, is described as having a great figure, but an ugly, “dark” face, apparently just so the reader won’t be confused as to who the actual "golden girl" love interest will eventually be.)

On the other hand, Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is Gothic novel for the 21st century, far more sexual, far more brutal than Collins’ Victorian offering. The novel tells the story of the peculiar inhabitants of Angelfield, including the eerily connected identical twins (there are those doppelgangers again), Adeline and Emmeline, who live in squalor despite their wealth in order to keep the world from encroaching on their bizarre existence. Minor biographer Margaret Lea is commissioned by the famous author Vida Winter – who was once known as Adeline March – to tell “the truth” about Angelfield, finally. But it turns out that “the truth” is the hardest thing for Vida to reveal – or even understand.

What makes this novel so very different is the strength and ingenuity of the female characters. Vida is a force of nature, bombastic and opinionated, but ultimately still vulnerable:

Politeness, now there’s a poor man’s virtue if ever there was one. What’s so admirable about inoffensiveness, I should like to know. After all, it’s easily achieved. One needs no particular talent to be polite. On the contrary, being nice is what’s left when you’ve failed at everything else.” (pg. 45)

Not exactly Laura Fairlie, even in her dotage, is she?

The Thirteenth Tale has a wonderful and wicked set of characters, from biographer Margaret Lea, the narrator, to The Missus, the housekeeper who holds the Angelfield family together by a thread, to the twins, the mild, nurturing Emmeline and selfish, impulsive Adeline. Vida reveals her story in fits and starts, violently twisting her way toward “the truth.” It gives the reader a good, creepy, modern day dose of peril, while staying true to its Gothic roots. Even though I’m usually a purist, I actually preferred the homage in this case. I would recommend either novel to readers looking for a sensationalist, suspense-filled diversion. But for readers who get antsy with the weight of serialized Victorian novels, I say head directly for The Thirteenth Tale . You're far more likely to stick with it, and the goosebumps will be worth it!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cheerleading for Team Simile

Today is the Dewey 24 Hour Readathon! I knew my daughter-shuttling life would be too hectic to spend a day reading, so I signed up to cheer. (Seriously, it's all about the pom-poms!) This time the Cheering Teams are divided into literary terms. I'm on Team Simile -- although I definitely would have thought I belonged on Team Irony :-)

I'll be heading to as many Team Simile blogs as I can throughout the day, and tweeting to the Twitter-verse (I'm @ Col_Reads), cheering on the valiant readers! I wish everyone a day of Good Words!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Col Cooks: Tortilla Española

How do you make 7 eggs, an onion and a pound of potatoes into a light dinner? Or an upscale, vegetarian appetizer? Or a nifty, thrifty potluck takealong? All the same answer: make a tortilla. A couple of my friends asked for the recipe after I brought a tortilla to a friend's picnic, and posted a picture of said tortilla on my Facebook site. So here it is.

Basically, a tortilla is a fried potato omelette, the ultimate Spanish abuelita meal. It's easy enough to make, but it takes some patience and requires just a little bit of technique -that's why the ingredient list is short but the directions seem long. Once you master the basics, you'll be making it all the time, varying the recipe based on what you have floating around the fridge. And bonus, it's as good at room temperature as they are fresh out of the pan, so it's a perfect do-ahead company munch.

Tortilla Española

1/4 cup + 6 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound red potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
1 large Spanish onion
7 large eggs
Salt & pepper
Parsley, if you want to go nuts and garnish
  1. Slice the potatoes and onions very thinly (using a mandoline or the slicer attachment on your food processor is the way to go here, if you have the equipment).

  2. Place 6 tablespoons oil into a saute pan that will just fit all the onions (they are going to reduce a bunch, so don't worry if it looks like too much for the pan at first). Saute slowly, on medium to low heat, until the onions are carmelized, about 20 minutes. (You will probably need to reduce the heat as the onions develop color -- you don't want to burn them.)

  3. Meantime, place the 1/4 cup of oil into a large skillet, and heat to medium. Fry the potato slices in batches, until the edges are golden brown. (If some of them stick together, don't worry about it, but you don't want clumps of potatoes -- you want them to be cooked through, with the edges just crisping.) Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels. Continue until all the potatoes are fried.

  4. Whisk the eggs well, so that the yolks are completely combined with the whites.

  5. Combine carmelized onions, fried potatoes and egg mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper. Mix well, until the potatoes are competely coated in egg.

  6. Reheat the skillet in which the potatoes were cooked -- if the bottom is not covered with oil, add a bit, and put over medium heat. Add the egg mixture, spreading out to create an even layer. Reduce the heat to low. Cook for about 5 minutes, partially covered with a large pot cover, until bottom is golden brown.

  7. Now for the tricky part. Take a large, oiled, flat platter, place it over the top of the skillet, and QUICKLY flip the omelette onto the platter. Replace the skillet on the burner, and slide the omelette back into the pan, uncooked side down.

  8. Cook on low until the bottom is cooked golden brown, about another 5 minutes. Loosen omelette and slide onto a serving platter. Let set for at least 5 minutes before cutting into wedges - but you can also let it cool completely. Garnish with a bit of parsley if you want to be fancy!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Princess Bride: Milestone 1

One of my reading goals for the fall was to join a readalong. Reading is lonely business -- unless of course you're reading to someone else -- and I thought it might be fun to participate in an ongoing discussion. So I couldn't believe my luck when I stumbled onto an announcement that Chrisbookarama was hosting a readalong of The Princess Bride, a book I had never read, but based on a movie that I love more everytime I see it.

Which is why it came as quite a shock when I had some trouble getting into the book.

You see, I wasn't really prepared for the Introduction. I was all ready for true love and high adventure, and what I got was altogether different: William Goldman's "mockumentary" explanation of how he came to write both the book and the movie. Actually, the story is a pretty good one, albeit a little self-indulgent on Goldman's part, I think. I just hadn't anticipated it.

But once I got to Chapter 1 The Bride, the book delivered on the movie's promise. That's especially true because without the time constraints of a movie, Goldman has a lot more time to develop the characters. Buttercup, in particular, seems like a much more substantial character in the book, as when she declares her love for Westley, and he slams the door in her face.

"Chalk it up to experience, old girl, and get on with the morning. Buttercup stood, made her bed, changed her clothes, combed her hair, smiled, and burst out again in a fit of weeping. Because there was a limit to just how much you could lie to yourself."

The other characters are also more fleshed out -- Humperdinck, in particular, appears more villianous than in the movie, where Count Rugen appeared to be the "brains" of the operation. Now that the high adventure has begun, I am eager to read on. I'm also eager to hear everyone else's thoughts, especially about the way Goldman "inserts" himself into the text. Thanks to Chrisbookarama for hosting this readalong!

Next stop, Guilder!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Cookbook Collector: A Character Connection

Yes, Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector tells the absorbing story of two motherless, archetypically opposite sisters finding their way through the Dot.Com Boom in 1990s Berkeley, California. But as much as I liked the book, and I really did, neither of them is the subject of my Character Connection. Because with The Cookbook Collector, Goodman has written one of the absolute sexiest characters I have encountered in a book for quite a while: George Friedman, owner and operator of Yorick’s Used and Rare Books, where the younger and flightier of the beautiful Bach sisters works.

George Friedman has it all. A 40-something Microsoft millionaire, he sold his shares at their peak, and his money now funds a relentless search for authenticity. He doesn’t just want the best of everything – with lots of money that would be easy. What he’s looking for is the rare, the extraordinary, the unique, from Grgich Hill wines to his perfectly restored Maybeck house. He’s honorable. He’s nouveau-patrician. He’s handsome. He’s smart. And he’s a book lover. Are you swooning already?
“He was a reader, an autodidact with such a love for Great Books that he scarcely passed anymore for a Berkeley liberal. Strange to say, but at this time in his life George would have a happier conversation with Berkeley, the philosopher, than with most of his old Berkeley friends.”
Now anyone who has ever read an Austen novel knows that an unmarried, handsome, wealthy man, especially one who comes off as just a bit too self-sufficient, must be “in want of a wife.” And there’s also no doubt that George owes a great deal to Austen’s own legendarily wealthy, difficult but ultimately noble heroes, particularly my best crush forever, Mr. Darcy. So I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that I anticipated the potential outcome of George’s storyline within the first page of his appearance, cranky and authoritarian – but still quite endearing – shouting out orders to Jessamine. Still, the novel has some major twists, so it didn’t seem at all contrived or predictable.

But what I really like is how Goodman has reimagined the Darcy-model for the beginning of the 21st century. George is a fabulous cook, a runner and definitely not a smotherer. He is selfish, certainly. How can anyone who bases his life on acquiring the nextest, bestest, shiniest thing fail to be a selfish? But it’s clear from the beginning that what George really needs someone to share his collections with. In fact, if he had someone to share them with – if he could actually find the one, truly unique thing in the world, someone to love him completely – he wouldn’t need the collections at all. And I really couldn’t help rooting for him to find that person throughout this really enjoyable book, because he struck me as the most decent character in it.

I’m really glad George Friedman was my first Character Connection – it was kind of like a good first date, if my husband will forgive the analogy. I have never participated in a meme before, but I have read a few of these and truly enjoyed them. Writing this has definitely given me a different perspective on my book reviews, and I’m sure I’ll participate again. So thanks to the Introverted Reader for hosting Character Connections, and thanks to my awesome buddy Jess at Desperado Penguin who suggested we read this book together and “simul-blog.”

Move over, Mr. Darcy. There’s a new literary crush on the block. And he’s even awesome in the kitchen. I’m in literary love.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

As Always, Julia: A friendship forged on paper

Letters freeze time. Big newsy letters are cultural artifacts. Big newsy letters between two brilliant and engaging women who share a great love of food, France and Democratic politics are ingredients for the best social history I’ve read this year: Joan Reardon’s fabulous As Always, Julia.

As Always, Julia shares the letters of Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, the wife of an author to whom Child happened to send a letter. Avis wrote a response for her busy husband, and a long-distance friendship was born. But DeVoto became way more than a friend to Child – these letters make clear how very instrumental she was to the ultimate publication of the undertaking that became Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

It’s fascinating to watch a friendship develop before the two ever meet, but it’s easy to understand why. Julia’s sense of humor and enthusiasm bubbles off the pages sometimes, like when she inserts in the middle of a lengthy letter, “My for a short note, this ain’t,” (pg. 46) and then jumps back into a detailed discussion of Beurre Blanc. She seems almost giddy– maybe it was all the wonderful sparkling wine she lovingly describes? Whatever it is, it’s contagious – I just couldn’t help smiling as I read some passages, and I could see why DeVoto took an immediate interest in this passionate whirlwind of a woman.

For her part, the letters show that DeVoto was ex-pat Child’s most significant link to the United States, a country that was becoming increasingly “foreign” to Child during her years in Europe. Avis was also tireless in her support of Julia’s work, and ultimately used her connections at Knopf to put Child’s book into the hands of Judith Jones. The rest is history, of course, but this book adds another dimension to the story, illustrating how critical this wonderful friendship was to Child’s success:
“Your generosity in putting us up, wining us, introducing us, talking, sitting, ice-coffee-ing, and just letting us share your life for a while was heaven. And we felt so at home with you. You were exactly, I think, though now I can’t be sure, our “Dear Avis,” perfectly familiar.” (pg. 177)

One of the most interesting things about the book is how it gives us a peak into another world – or at least another lifetime: “What with the boss going out to Springfield and helping with other speeches here, I have to swing a lot of his affairs myself. After a blistering hot summer during which my weight fell to 112 pounds, I could do with some peace and the opportunity to putter around a stove.” (p. 16) I mean, how Mad Men is it to “swing” your boss’ affairs while he’s away? The book is a time capsule!

Through the years, the two women remained devoted to each other, with Julia choosing to move to Cambridge when her husband’s time with the State Department was at an end. They shared life’s sadnesses and joys, as only old friends can. I was sad to think of how lost Child must have felt after DeVoto’s death.

I highly recommend this book to people who love Julia Child, to people who love letters, to people who love memoirs, to people who love food, to people who depend on their girlfriends, to people who rejoice in travel, and especially to people who enjoy social histories. What an awesome find!

Thanks to Elizabeth Anderson at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing me a review copy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

More peril in Scandinavia: Smilla's Sense of Snow

Smilla Jasperson doesn’t belong in Copenhagen. She was born in Greenland and raised by her Inuit mother, from whom she learned everything about snow and ice. But after her mother’s death, her estranged Danish father brought her to Copenhagen, where as an adult she lives a solitary, callous, irascible existence, except for her friendship with a poor Inuit boy, Isaiah. When Isaiah falls off the roof to his death, even though she knows he is terrified of heights, she suspects foul play. The authorities quickly close the case, and she realizes someone with a lot of power doesn’t want the murder solved, so she sets out to do it on her own.

Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow presents the reader with a difficult protagonist in a difficult situation. She is already an outsider, a sensory-oriented woman in a verbal society. She is uncomfortable with language (her native tongue is leaving her, but she has never been quite comfortable with Danish), and her first person narration reflects that anxiety. In fact, the narration is so frustratingly incomplete that it feels almost antagonistic at times:
“He has a collection of aftershave lotions and eau de toilette that smell expensive and sweetly alcoholic: I open them and put a dab of the fragrance on a paper napkin, which I then roll into a ball and put in the pocket of my smock, to flush down the toilet later on. I’m looking for something specific, but I don’t find it. Or anything else of interest, either.” (page 268).

The reader is being kept in the dark deliberately, because Smilla won’t – or can’t – share.

I can see why some people give up on this book. It’s non-linear and cryptic, with important pieces of information tossed in as asides. The story hangs on some elaborate coincidences, and some giant leaps of logic move the reader through the “clues” to solve the mystery.

I liked the book, though. As someone who normally looks at snow only as a potential traffic hazard and school delayer, I found Smilla’s meticulous observations of ice absorbing. I wondered who Hoeg got to explain ice and snow to him in such painstaking detail. I also liked the author’s descriptions of the uneasy relationship between the government of Denmark and Greenland’s Inuit peoples, which are scattered throughout book. The social commentary on contemporary Danish society was fascinating.

I would recommend this book for those wanting another dose of Scandinavian Noir – Smilla’s contrary, outsider sensibility has something in common with Lisbeth Salander's. Also to those who like titles that explore the perspectives of different cultures. But that recommendation comes with a caveat: if your satisfaction with a mystery depends on a tidy resolution, this may not be the title for you.

So more peril from Scandinavia finishes my fifth book in the Scandianvian Reading Challenge – only one more to go! And it also counts for the RIP Challenge, so only one to go to complete Peril the First. Now for some grading – the sooner it’s done, the sooner I can get back to the books!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Col Cooks: Multigrain Sourdough Bread

I am in the middle of four good books at this point, which I admit is becoming a bit obsessive. So in my spare time I'm thinking about bread, which withstands a lot more book neglect than, say, children. Yes, homemade bread takes some time, but most of it is "hands off," waiting for me to finish the next chapter. This is the basic bread I make weekly for sandwiches. A thick slice toasted with goat cheese and a perfectly ripe tomato is my favorite breakfast.

1 cup sourdough starter*
1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup rolled oats
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons neutral oil (like sunflower or safflower)
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 -2 1/2 cups white bread flour

1. Bring starter to room temperature in mixing bowl.

2. Soak rolled oats in milk for five minutes.

3. Add oat and milk mixture to the sourdough starter. Mix in honey, oil and salt.

4. Add cornmeal, then whole wheat flour, until incorporated completely. Then add bread flour 1/2 cup at a time until the dough is no longer sticky.

5. Knead until the dough is completely smooth (feels like an earlobe when pinched -- this takes about 5-7 minutes with the bread hook on my KitchenAid mixer).

6. Let rise in an oiled bowl until doubled (depending on the temperature and the starter, this can take several hours or even a day).

7. Punch down bread, reknead until smooth, and place the loaf in a bread pan. Let rise in the refrigerator (preferably overnight).

8. Bake in a 375 degree F oven for about an hour, until crust is golden brown and bread sounds hollow when rapped. Let cool 5 minutes in pan, then remove to a wire rack.

*The sourdough starter I use has been around for about a year at this point. I used the "Foolproof" Sourdough Starter recipe on's Sourdough page. It worked like a charm.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Enjoying the charming perils of The Graveyard Book

My plan for the RIP V (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge was to turn up the volume on my peril consumption gradually in the months leading up to Halloween. I started with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, a mystery I loved, but which presented more puzzles than perils. So moving up the peril ladder, I chose Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book for my second read.

This was my first Neil Gaiman title, and I didn’t know what to expect. Gaiman seems to be one of those “love-him-or-hate-him” authors. So I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining the book was, from start to finish. While the premise might be grim – a toddler escapes the knife-wielding madman who has murdered the other members of his family by wandering into a graveyard, where he is raised by the dead (and nearly dead) occupants – the book is actually a coming of age story about taking advantage of whatever bizarre resources and unconventional talents you happen to have, and ultimately making your way in the world with what you’ve learned.

The Graveyard Book delivers both humor and humanity along with a few—but not very many – spine-tingly moments. Bod (short for Nobody Owens) grows from a little boy to a young adult, secure in the refuge of his unconventional home, surrounded by his strange but loving family. The genius of the book is that while Bod’s guardian sleeps in a crypt and his best friend was drowned and burned as a witch, it all seems completely normal. After all, whose family isn’t a bit off the wall? Who hasn’t dreaded making the acquaintance of some mildly unsavory character, only to find out you have way more in common with him than you could have believed? In that, Gaiman owes a great deal to Charles Addams, I think.

I liked the way Gaiman took creatures already in our cultural consciousness – ghouls and vampires and werewolves and witches – and expanded on them, giving them sometimes unexpected personalities and characteristics. Unfortunately, I think he was somewhat less successful with the creatures of his own imagination. Without a cultural reference, I never thought the Sleer developed in such a way that his actions could be anticipated. And the Jacks remained a mystery at the end. All the evil visited upon the toddler still seemed too enigmatic for a YA title.

Gaiman is at his best when he writes the menacing bits: “Fear is contagious. You can catch it. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say that they’re scared for the fear to become real” (pg. 188). I definitely wouldn’t have minded had he pushed the panic button just a bit harder in a few places.

Still, this is a YA title that I would definitely recommend to people who love a good ghost and ghoul story. I am especially looking forward to reading it with my 4th grader this October – she’s at that great age where she LOVES to be scared – but just not too much. I’m envisioning a blustery night, a candlelit room, some warm apple cider, and the fun of sharing a mildly perilous tale.

You know that mildly apprehensive sensation that’s easily made better by a hug? That’s The Graveyard Book.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Night Counter: Every life has 1,001 stories to tell

Scheherazade had to get her stories from somewhere, didn’t she? In Alia Yunis’ The Night Counter, we meet the immortal storyteller as she is winding down the end of her 1,001 nights of stories from Fatima Abdullah, matriarch of a large and scattered clan of Lebanese Americans. Now in her mid-80s, Fatima is counting down the nights of her life, and we meet her as she is finally getting to her most personal stories – the ones that are hardest to tell, because they are about her adult life.

Fatima’s experience mirrors that of many Lebanese-Americans. Fatima’s marriage to her first husband, Marwan, was arranged. Marwan had grown up in the United States and had traveled back to Lebanon to find a bride. The couple arrives back in Detroit, where Marwan is a union organizer, during the Great Depression. After Marwan’s untimely death, a pregnant Fatima marries her husband’s best friend, and together they raise a typical first generation American family in the suburbs of Detroit.

The book spans both Fatima’s early life in Lebanon and her life in the United States. But not surprisingly, it’s the relationships between Fatima, her husbands, her children and her numerous grandchildren that are the heart of the novel – these are the stories Scheherazade is dying to hear, because they illustrate the immutable (love, betrayal, anger, forgiveness) and the current moment in time (higher education, anti-Islam, interfaith marriage, even computer dating).

"We have memories so that we can share them." Scheherazade sighed for the second time that night. "Otherwise God wouldn't have given us the ability to remember."

Without giving anything away, the large clan allows Yunis to cover the breadth and depth of the first generation American experience, from those who embrace their roots to those who would do anything to bury them deeper.

I really enjoyed this book, because it delivered not only a range of characters but a range of emotions. It was like a family gathering in novel form, with some laughs, some tears, some unpleasant memories, and a shared history that can only be understood by having lived it. Fatima, in particular, reminded me of my own grandmother, who was herself the wife of a teamster organizer – she was cranky and blunt and protective and loyal. Fatima is not a warm and fuzzy, baking-cookies kind of grandma, but she is still motivated by her great love for her family. And she is constrained by the time she was born in and the culture she was raised in; throughout the novel we see her difficulties in understanding and accepting her children’s very different realities.

I thank Marie at Boston Bibliophile for this recommendation, and highly recommend it myself. In the post-September 11 era, I think it’s especially worth considering how very typical of the American experience the story of the Abdullah clan truly is.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cutting for Stone finds beauty in the most horrifying places on earth

Abraham Verghese’s sensational Cutting for Stone is about destiny and finding your place in the world – about what is pre-determined, and what you can make happen on your own. The book follows the life of most unlikely twins Marion and Shiva Stone, their birth mother an Indian nun, their birth father a British surgeon, as they grow up in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. After the twins’ mother dies in childbirth, they are raised in Addis Ababa’s expatriate medical community by two Indian doctors, Hema and Ghosh.

“Sensational” is the exact word for this book, as Verghese offers insights into Marion and Shiva’s startling and visceral relationships with their seemingly star-crossed adoptive parents, their godmother who runs the hospital at which their parents worked, their panoply of family friends and helpers, their childhood playmate Genet, and finally and most importantly, each other. Even though they are born under the most horrible circumstances possible, the boys embrace their circumstances, proving that great love is possible whenever the right heart is willing. The author’s evocative writing, which is from the perspective of the older twin, Marion, allows us to experience the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and emotions of the boys’ world, but the narrative never comes to any conclusion about the world the boys “should” occupy – it is a book that radiates the current moment, even when it is relating the past.

One of the major themes in this novel is “belonging.” With whom do you fit in, and why? Is it community that makes a culture, or is it religion or is it geography? Midway through the novel, even though the twins are born in Ethiopia, and they speak Amharic fluently, Marion realizes that he is not seen as “Ethiopian,” but as an expatriate. Having realized how far out of the mainstream Addis Ababa is because of his late introduction to American rock and roll, Marion starts to rethink the romanticism of the expatriate life.

“I’d always thought the expatriates represented the best of culture and style of the 'civilized' world. But I could see now that they were so far from Broadway or the West End or La Scala, that they probably were a decade behind the times, just as I’d been with Chuck Berry.” (p. 314)

How far are you from your culture if you’ve never even seen it first hand? Can ancestors you’ve never met help determine the person you will become? Verghese examines the many reasons for leaving one's homeland, and the many reactions to those who already inhabit the places where immigrants land, from Africa to the Bronx.

This is a fascinating and beautifully written novel. I appreciated the complexity and enigmatic nature of the personalities portrayed in the book – there is neither good nor bad in these characters, only detail. In that sense, the novel resembles a medical chart, crammed with as much information, and as little bias, as possible. Not surprising as the author is a professor of medicine at Stanford. I loved the author’s ability to underscore the human predicament of even the most unlikeable characters. There is no “cartoonish” evil in this book – as in life, evil is subtle and situational.

Toward the end the book was a bit myopic – for example, there are many native born US American interns in New York City’s toughest hospitals, although the novel's characters categorically insist there are not. Clearly, Verghese is trying to make a case about the necessity of the educated immigrant class, but that case could have been made without the only stereotypes that inhabit the novel, the “high-and-mighty” American MDs. The rest of the book was so much more nuanced that I couldn’t help but be disappointed on that point.

Still, Cutting for Stone is a work of the first decade of the 21st century that no one who loves literature should miss. The author’s attention to detail and appreciation for other cultures is rare. The characters he creates are so real that I couldn’t help but wonder where they are now. I give this book an unqualified recommendation.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Driving Over Lemons, and making lemonade

There’s something intriguing about the guy who might have been the drummer for Genesis shearing sheep and running a farm in Andalucía. Of course if he had stuck with the original job, and not vacated his seat for a guy named Phil Collins, who knows if Genesis would have become Genesis? But I’d think that it would make a person wonder what might have been every once in a while.

Well, not Chris Stewart. Years after leaving the band, Stewart went to Spain, fell in love with the rugged mountains of the Sierra Nevada, and suddenly bought a farm without running water or electricity. And it appears he never looked back.

Driving over Lemons recounts Stewart's early years of raising sheep and oranges at El Valero, a decaying farm on the “wrong” side of a river that separates the farm from civilization at some times during the year. There are the funny bits and quirky characters readers have come to expect from these kinds of cross-cultural memoirs. But like any book with a “different” culture at its heart, this book is ultimately about the author’s own culture, examining which parts of it the author can shed, which parts of it he or she can adapt, and which parts of it are so close to the author’s soul that they can never be left behind. In the case of Chris Stewart that would be: tea.

Seriously, the one thing that this book lacks, compared with the others in its genre, is a coming to grips with the inner turmoil of living outside your culture. For most people it is confusing at first, and sometimes even threatening. But Stewart’s view is decidedly rosy. The author describes himself as an “optimist,” and I definitely would not describe myself as one, so maybe I just don’t understand his perspective. But the book seemed a bit “light” to me, as though Stewart didn’t want to offend anyone. The way he was pushed around by El Valero’s former owner almost made me put the book down – maybe he’s optimistic, maybe he’s just naïve, or maybe he’s naively optimistic. In the end I couldn’t decide.

Having spent some time in Spain, I did appreciate Stewart’s descriptions of the countryside, and his collection of the common wisdom of the local farmers has some funny moments. This is not the kind of book that made me laugh out loud, but it did give me some insight into the joys of veering out of life’s fast lane. I just never identified with Stewart enough to really share in his ups, because I didn’t see any of the downs. Still, the book is highly recommended for someone planning a trip – or a life – in Andalucía, and anyone who loves travel-based memoirs.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: Solving African mysteries, great and small

Botswana is suddenly on my Bucket List, and it’s all because of Precious Ramotswe.

I had already put Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on my reading list for the R.I.P. V Challenge when Karen over at How Mysterious gave a great review to the second audio book in that series. With a trip to New Jersey looming, and a 1-book credit on burning a hole in my digital pocket, I decided to download the audio book.

Another great call, Karen.

Precious Ramotswe is a gatherer – a gatherer of people, a gatherer of skills and a gatherer of information. A non-traditional woman in a traditional but changing society, Mma Ramotswe takes her inheritance and puts her considerable deductive powers to work by opening Botswana’s first female owned and operated detective agency. As a new business owner, she takes almost any case that comes her way, from tracking down pampered pooches to exposing insurance cheats. She constructs each case as a puzzle, and she uses her knowledge of Botswana –culture, flora, fauna, history – to make the pieces of the puzzle fit.

I especially loved the idea of having Precious solve lots of different mysteries, rather than have the book dominated by one case: you got to know her and the supporting cast of characters better as you encounter both her successes and failures during her first months on the job. And there’s a good deal of humor to go along with the sleuthing, because Precious can both laugh at herself and laugh at the world.

This is a particularly engaging audio book. With Lisette Lecat’s African-accented narration, the story truly springs to life. I loved Lecat’s graceful pronunciation of the Setswanan names, and the changes in her voice that signaled different characters were consistent, clear and never cutesy. The only thing I might have wished for was some of the sounds of Botswana – fires crackling at a cattle station, traditional music drifting from a neighbor’s turntable, birds calling from the thorn bushes.

It’s been a long time since a book prompted me to think about traveling to some way-out destination, but I found myself trolling the Internet for photo safaris in Botswana when I got home from New Jersey today. That’s the transportational power of a good read in action.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Col Cooks: Desperation Potluck Sesame Noodles

Perhaps some of you have a teenager. And perhaps that fabulous, beautiful, perfect child who you have loved and adored for almost nine months longer than he or she has been alive, has rattled you with a sentence something like this: "Mom, what did you make for the potluck?"

Potluck? "What potluck?" you ask slowly, your eyes narrowing, and your perfect child not seeming quite so perfect as just a few seconds ago.

"Oh, the band pot luck. I was supposed to bring a main dish. I thought I told you. But if you can't do it, no biggie. I'll just tell them you didn't have the time."

Fabulous, so now you are either the evil working mom who couldn't be bothered to send something in for the pot luck, or you come up with a main course within a half hour.

Friends, next time your perfect child presents this perfect pickle, here is your dish. Because if you cook much Asian food, you probably have most everything in the pantry already. It is not authentic, but it is delicious -- and it will get you off the hook in under 12 minutes*.

Col's Desperation Potluck Sesame Noodles**

1/3 cup light sesame oil
1/3 cup tamari soy sauce
4 T Chinese black vinegar (or any mild vinegar if you don't have it)
2 T brown sugar
2 T kosher salt
1 T chili oil
2 t ground ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
juice of 1/2 lime
1 lb. spaghetti
12 basil leaves, shredded (optional)
2 T toasted sesame seeds (optional)

As in all emergencies, start by boiling water!

Whisk all ingredients to lime juice together in a large bowl. Meanwhile, boil spaghetti until al dente. Drain pasta and cool with cold water. Let drain. Toss pasta with sauce. Garnish with basil and sesame seeds, if desired. Packs perfectly in a 2.25 L plastic container.

*Once the water is boiling.
**The original inspiration for this dish was "Sesame Noodles with Asparagus Tips" from Debbie Madison's essential cookbook, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have tweaked it to our tastes and streamlined it so much that it's no longer the same thing, but I heartily recommend the original -- and the book -- as well!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

My apologies to The Girl*

I don’t know how to say this, exactly. I don’t mean to be contrary, and I’m not looking to get all “mavericky” or anything. But I have to admit it, because I swore that if I was going to write a book blog I was going to be completely honest about my opinions. So here goes.

I didn’t enjoy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

There, I’ve said it.

It's not you, Girl. It's me. I just don't find carnage enjoyable.

To be exact, I didn’t enjoy two out of the three main storylines that comprise Stieg Larsson’s preternaturally popular novel. Actually, I thought the Wennerström story, the industrial corruption storyline that got our hero Mikael Blomkvist into so much trouble in the first place, was very well conceived and executed. If the book had focused on that line, it might have been one of my favorite books of the summer -- clever and confusing, in a very good way.

But the book didn't focus on that storyline. Instead, it wandered into some places I just don't really want to think about. I found the Vanger family storyline unnecessarily creepy and violent. And the storyline involving Lisbeth Salander’s evil guardian was absolutely disgusting.

(Larsson paints a very ugly picture of Swedish society. I’ve been to Sweden, and met such lovely people there. But after I finished this novel I was wondering if I hadn’t been lucky to escape Stockholm with my life.)

The plot moves along quickly, and the main characters are so compelling that you want to know what happens next. But from a storytelling standpoint, I found Larsson’s use of italics completely distracting. It’s as though he didn’t trust the reader:
“I’m serious Lisbeth. About splitting the money.”
“I’m serious too. I only want to borrow it, and I need it tomorrow.”
She didn’t even ask how much her share would be. (Kindle p. 9726)
I know she didn’t ask how much her share would be, because I was just party to the entire conversation. What ever happened to “show, don’t tell?” Maybe it's a translation issue, but it struck me as odd.

Obviously, the world hasn’t gone nuts over this novel for nothing though, and there are a lot of things to like here. One of them is Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist convicted of libel by a system that favors industry. God knows journalism could use a champion right about now, and Blomkvist might fit the bill. Larsson makes him a kind of Sam Spade without a gun. He has a shady personal life, but you get the idea that he’ll do the right thing in the end.

Master hacker Lisbeth Salander is the most unique character in the book. And I imagine she is responsible in large part for the book's worldwide appeal --there just isn't another character like her. She goes from victim to avenging angel to super spy in the course of the novel. I think the best part of the subsequent books would be watching that character grow. But considering what Larsson put her through in this book, I'm not sure I want to know what happens next.

As a mystery, this was a page turner, and if you don't mind the gore, I imagine this would be a really good read. But I don't think my stomach can handle another installment.

Sorry, Girl.

*I've been using the "Girl" reference for the series since I read it on "How Mysterious," so thanks, Karen.

Micro-history Monday: The Professor and the Madman

With The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester presents a strange, personal and oddly upbeat history of the relationship between two men that ought never to have met. The first is Professor James Murray, the Scottish-born lexicographer behind what is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary. The second is Dr. W.C. Minor, a brilliant but insane American surgeon who murdered a London man in cold blood in the years after the American Civil War. Minor was consigned to the Broadmoor asylum after he was found not guilty of the crime because of insanity, and ultimately became one of the most significant contributors to the OED’s volunteer efforts. It was only after the first edition of the OED was published, when Murray traveled to Minor’s address to thank him personally for his tireless work, that Murray found out the doctor’s true identity and situation.

The story was bizarre enough to be fodder for the tabloid press on both sides of the Atlantic more than once during the early part of the 20th century, so it’s not surprising that Winchester resurrected the story again at the end of that century for further investigation. But I would argue that the tale of the two men merely provides a “hook” for the book that Winchester actually wanted to write (but which publishers no doubt told him wouldn’t sell), a history of English dictionaries, including his obviously beloved OED. And this is one of my main problems with the book. Winchester’s voice is so effusive in its praise of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, and then the OED, he waxes so poetic on their developments and uses, that he loses the battle for objectivity. My expectation of historians is when they re-approach a subject they will take many perspectives into account. But Winchester sweeps aside any criticisms of the OED – and there are many – in favor of devoted fandom:

There is some occasional carping that the work reflects an elitist, male, British, Victorian tone. Yet even in the admission that, like so many achievements of the era, it did reflect a set of attitudes not wholly harmonic with those prevalent at the end of the twentieth century, none seem to suggest that any other dictionary has ever come close, or will ever come close, to the achievement that it offers.(p. 221)

Winchester constructs the English language as the last vestige of the British Empire. But if it is, it’s worth remembering that it no longer belongs to the Victorian era. For me, the quaint spellings and definitions that make up the OED are an interesting historical artifact, but they give little sense of the dynamism of English in the internet age – for that, you’re better off with Urban Dictionary. So while I understand the importance of the original achievement, I am not as convinced as Winchester that the lexicographical achievement will stand alone in history -- I have more faith in English-speaking humanity than that. And humanity in general.

My second major problem with the book was the “pop psychology” angle on which some of the book's chapters depended. There is endless speculation about the causes of Dr. Minor’s madness (schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and separation anxiety are all proffered as possible explanations), as well as a prurient suggestion that some of the doctor’s later problems might have been caused by an unnatural attraction to the wife of the man Minor murdered – even though there is absolutely no shred of evidence that such an attraction existed. “Why go there?” I kept wondering.

This is a good book, however. The writing style was too flowery for my taste, but the story is told in a compelling way, moving between the two main characters - three if you count the OED - at a lively pace. Winchester did do primary research, and uncovered some letters that expand and enhance the story over previous tabloid versions. The word sleuths out there will definitely find it a treat. Recommended to those who can't start the week without finishing the NYT crossword puzzle, word historians, and anyone else who truly loves language.

That finishes the "What's in a Name 3" challenge - finally. I'm looking forward to next year's categories!