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!