Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

I have spent a lot of entertainment time in Second World War Britain lately: watching The King’s Speech, listening to Old Filth, and now reading Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. More than that, the book that made me realize how very much I had missed reading for the sheer pleasure of it – enough so that my tenure gift to myself was to start reading things I wanted to read, and not things I had to read – was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, a beautiful and heartbreaking novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands. So that book, in a way, led to Col Reads.

Aside from Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, all of these are relatively recent works, and I spent some time during this Persephone Reading Weekend thinking about why the theme seems so pertinent right now. And I had the uneasy realization that it’s probably because the people who actually remember that critical time in history are about to leave us forever. And while many of them – and us, their children and grandchildren – spent a lot of our lives thinking that the Second World War was the last large-scale war the world would ever see, it’s probably a good time to revisit the ugliness that our parents and grandparents lived through and tried to protect us from, before we get to feeling too smug and wind up having to live the nightmare all over again.

Which is an extraordinarily long introduction to why I thought Good Evening, Mrs. Craven was one of the most wonderful book I have read in a while, and why I appreciated the ersatz ethnography of wartime England that Mollie Panter-Downes short stories for The New Yorker has left us all.

Panter-Downes’ stories are not “pretty.” In fact, I’d say they’re quite the opposite: they focus on the “ugly” side of the homefront, the inner turmoil beneath the calm. Since the book is arranged chronologically, we can see shifts in the dominant emotions expressed as the war goes on, from enthusiasm and earnestness in the earliest stories to hopelessness and fear in the middle, to resolve and exhaustion near the end.

Reviewing a collection of short stories is difficult – they are each so different, touching on distinct emotions and situations. They were never meant to hang together, especially by Panter-Downes, who apparently never thought as much of her fiction work as she did of her journalism. And yet I do think the stories hang together, if only because the author chose to focus on small, intimate moments of (mostly) women’s lives, at a time when everything they knew – social roles, class, family – were changing.

So, I thought I would share one of the moments that remains with me most after reading the anthology. “Goodbye, My Love,” was published on December 13, 1941. Newlyweds Ruth and Adrian are spending the last few days before his deployment doing what needs to be done, visiting his parents, seeing friends, keeping up a brave front. When Adrian finally departs, Ruth is devastated. She spends two days trying to get hold of her new situation, and she’s actually optimistic. As she lets herself into her flat on the third day, the phone rings – Adrian’s deployment has been postponed for 10 days, and he’s on the way home:
Ruth heard the click as he hung up, and she hung up slowly, too. For a moment she sat quite still. The clock on the table beside her sounded deafening again, beginning to mark off the ten days at the end of the tunnel. Then her face became drawn and, putting her hands over it, she burst into tears.

Devastating, isn’t it? And yet, although it’s not written, there’s no doubt that Ruth was fabulous when Adrian got home – stylish, sweet, and brave when he left again. This anthology reminded me of what my family went through. My great-grandmother had eight sons, grandsons and sons- and grandsons-in-law in various theaters of battle during the war – one of her sons was lost at Normandy. My father, the youngest child in his family, remembers letters from his older brother (my godfather) fighting in the Pacific. It wasn’t so long ago, but to my children it’s ancient history. As a history student, I know the danger of this – if we don’t remember our history, we may repeat it! I am so glad Mollie Panter-Downes work stands as a testament to the real heartbreaks of war, so real, so intense, so sublimated.

I don’t read a lot of short stories, and reading Good Evening, Mrs. Craven has reminded me what a mistake that is. My hectic life really lends itself to them. I loved reading this book, and can’t wait to read my next Persephone. Thanks to Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at CardiganGirlVerity for hosting this wonderful weekend of reading! And baci to Bellezza for sending me this lovely Persephone Santa Gift!



Saturday, February 26, 2011

Persephone Reading Weekend: Saturday Update

My Persephone Reading Weekend began with a whimper, I’m afraid – I finally got some time to read, got the house all quiet, cuddled up, read the Preface to Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, and promptly fell asleep. Gregory LeStage’s Preface was fascinating, though, as it prepared me for what’s to come: he notes that Panter-Downes’ stories focus on the psychological aspects of relationships, in a style akin to journalism – not surprising, considering her long relationship with The New Yorker, in which all the short stories in this collection were originally published.

An early bedtime meant I was up before the sun, however, and I enjoyed the beginning of the book with a cup of coffee before the rest of the house was awake. The Persephone edition of the book actually begins with the “Letter from London” that Panter-Downes wrote the week the United Kingdom declared war on Germany in 1939. It was especially interesting reading that piece having recently enjoyed The King’s Speech, which brought that time to life so vividly.

So far my favorite story is “Mrs. Ramsay’s War,” published in the winter of 1940, when it was unclear if this would be a prolonged conflict. It’s the second story featuring Mrs. Ramsay, a woman whose outer placidity doesn’t match her inner turmoil. This story focuses on the onerous nature of houseguests during the War. A friend’s family (along with their annoying Pekinese dogs) descends on Mrs. Ramsay at her country home during the first winter months of the evacuation of London. Like the patriotic woman she is, Mrs. Ramsay keeps a stiff upper lip in the face of shared hardship – but her inner dialog is anything but serene:
All autumn Mrs. Parmenter had run out between the showers and picked the asters, saying brightly that an old woman must be allowed to do something around the house. Opposition would hardly have been hysterical if she had offered to make the beds, but her tastes appeared to be floral. Now it was January, and the snowdrops, and before you knew where you were, Mrs. Ramsay thought morbidly, it would be May and the tulips. Somehow she had never expected to spend the war having a Battle of Flowers with Mrs. Parmenter.

Even this far in I see LeStage’s point: there’s very little plot in these stories. They’re all about what’s going on beneath the surface. I love the humor in her writing. It’s so subtle and understated and, well, British. Bellezza certainly nailed this gift – it’s absolutely my style. I have to admit, I’m surprised that I had never encountered Panter-Downes until now, but I’m thrilled to be reading her work now.

I hope everyone else has enjoyed a wonderful day of reading. Thanks again to Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at CardiganGirlVerity for hosting!

Looking forward to the rest of this Gray Weekend,


Friday, February 25, 2011

Persephone Reading Weekend Begins: Chill Out, Open Book, Insert Nose

Today began with a yearly female medical ritual that requires taking the “roundest” part of a woman, flattening it into a pancake, and then taking pictures of it. Necessary and important, but not so awesome. That was followed by a luncheon at which I was asked to make a short speech -- and although I am the chattiest person in the world in a small group, and I love nothing more than being in front of a classroom, speaking in front of a hundred people, some of them luminaries in their field, still makes my legs feel like jelly. Again, not so awesome.

Next came an unusually stressful dinner, because tonight was my younger daughter’s SLAM (Science, Language Arts & Music) Fair. She signed up to play Für Elise on piano, and was really nervous about it, but she wasn’t willing to admit it, so she was cranky instead. (She played beautifully, of course, but until she was done, not so awesome!)

So here it is, Friday evening. The not-so-awesome day is done. The heels are off, the jammies are on, and the wine is poured. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, the incredibly thoughtful gift from my Persephone Secret Santa, Bellezza, is on the couch. And I am going to spend a couple of quiet hours reading.

Life gets crazy on its own -- no need for me to go with it!

Thanks so much to Verity and Paperback Reader for hosting Persephone Reading Weekend. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone’s reviews and getting ideas for my next Persephone title!

Looking forward to a Gray Weekend!


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Character Connection: Cleopatra

There are a lot of great reviews of Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life already. I’ll join the chorus of those who think Schiff did a first-rate job of fitting together pieces of Cleopatra’s life that I didn’t know existed, and explaining along with them the geopolitical realities of the Romans’ Mediterranean world. I didn’t know what else I could actually add to the chorus. That’s why after struggling with this review for about a month, I finally decided to write it as a Character Connection.

Cleopatra, like Eleanor of Aquitaine more than a thousand years later, suffers in historical record for being a powerful woman whose legacy was recorded by men – men who had reason to hate her, to say the least. A bit depressing, isn’t it? Schiff’s biography does what so many other feminist-inspired works are forced to do: it imagines the day-to-day life and the motivations of a woman who was not privileged to tell her own story in her own way. Love the method or hate it, we already know Cleopatra’s story from the dominant, hegemonic vantage point: Vamp. Temptress. Usurper. Schiff reconceptualizes Cleopatra as something far more interesting: a woman. I’d call it a valiant effort.

Schiff doesn’t ignore primary accounts, but seeks to contextualize them, giving Cleopatra a complexity impossible to achieve by looking at those texts alone. At one point, she takes issue with Cleopatra’s legendary ability to “bewitch” men:

The consort of two men of voracious sexual appetite and innumerable sexual conquests, Cleopatra would go down in history as the snare, the delusion, the seductress. Citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts. In the same way it is easier to ascribe her power to magic than to love. We have evidence of neither, but the first can at least be explained; with magic one forfeits rather than loses the game. Kindle Location 2604

I read Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life during the Prince William-Kate Middleton engagement flurry. What struck me most was how William and Kate seemed to be trying so hard to just be like any young couple. The emphasis of the entire public relations campaign – and this royal-commoner engagement represents a massive PR campaign – was on their “love story.” Why? Because a love story is the one thing that royals might have in common with people like us. Sure, making them seem normal might take away some of the monarchy’s mystique – but their PR pros know it also makes them less vulnerable to attack.

In the absence of a personal narrative – even one contrived for public consumption – Cleopatra was easy to vilify. If only Cleopatra had left us her story, others would not have been able to fill the void with venom so easily. I appreciated Schiff’s attempt to give Cleopatra some kind of voice. Like a lawyer making a case, Schiff examines the motives behind the claims made against her. She can’t call her client to the witness stand, so instead she pokes holes in the opposing case. It’s not conclusive in the end, but if posterity is Cleopatra’s jury, Schiff gives it something to ponder. I’d highly recommend this to lovers of history, and for those interested in feminist scholarship. Though well-documented, it is a pretty light read – you certainly don’t have to be a student of history to enjoy reading this book.

Thanks to Jen at the Introverted Reader for hosting Character Connection. And what do you know? She’s also hosting the Dewey Decimal Challenge, which I am currently tearing up, with yet another non-fiction read! So thanks again, Jen.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Audiobook Review: Old Filth

Jane Gardam’s Old Filth is a portrait of successful barrister at the end of his life. To outsiders, Sir Edward Feathers’ journey appears to have been uneventful, charmed even. He attended a boarding school for young gentlemen during the Great Depression, served in a prestigious unit deployed in the English countryside in World War II, read law at Oxford directly after the war, and was admitted to the bar quickly. His legal success was legendary, his marriage was long and happy, his wealth was enviable. Gardam emphasizes this “outsider” view by starting each of the parts of the book with a dramaturgical scene, with acquaintances discussing Feathers in the format of a play: scene setting and character names followed by lines.

Of course, the interior life doesn’t match the exterior, and Gardam reveals the hidden sorrows of Eddie’s life through a present, first-person narrative and disjointed flashbacks in the days after his wife’s sudden death. We slowly learn about his miserable life as a “Raj orphan,” one of the thousands of children sent back at the age of 4 or 5 from the British Empire’s outposts in tropical Asia to be fostered by perfect strangers, who were paid to bring them up in the English way.

We also learn about the preternatural fear of homosexuality that the boarding school culture engendered. “Sir,” Eddie’s headmaster, impresses on the boy from the start that he runs a “clean school.” His friendship with another boy, Pat Ingelsby, is suspect, and it appears that the schools went to great lengths to keep young men from forming close and exclusive friendship, for fear that they signaled something “unsavory.” Not surprisingly, his childhood experiences leave Eddie emotionally distant and distrustful.

Gardam’s use of language is spare and evocative. Eddie’s seemingly serene life winds up packed with adventure, pain, and loss. The subject matter is heavy, but like all lives, there are wry moments, as when we learn why Sir Edward coined his own nickname (“Filth” stands for Failed in London, Try Hongkong). There’s plenty of irony too, as the least “savory” characters he’s met in his life prove to be the closest things he ever has to real friends.

The Raj orphan phenomenon was new to me. I found myself wondering why their parents bothered to have children that they had no intention of raising, but I suppose it made perfect sense at the time. Gardam paints a pretty unflattering portrait of the British Empire bureaucrats, who cannot seem to get far enough away from England, but don’t seem to be able to leave it truly behind and embrace the warm and sensuous cultures in which the find themselves.

The book was very good, but I did have some definite problems with it. The stream of consciousness musings were often disjointed. This may have been particularly pronounced as I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Graeme Malcom. The dramaturgical passages, especially, were read so fast that I felt some of their meaning was lost. Old Filth is a great character, but some of the plot twists rang false, and one or two interesting storylines simply petered out. I waffled between 3 and 4 stars on this book, but in the end it came down to enjoyment – I simply didn’t enjoy listening to it as much as I have other recent audiobooks. Gardam shares a great story, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to read The Man in the Wooden Hat, which recounts the Feathers’ marriage from his wife Betty’s point of view. But I will read it, not listen. I’m not sure Gardam’s complex style is the right fit for an audiobook for me. Her work appears to take more concentration than I can muster at the gym, which is how I generally fit audiobooks in to my schedule.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Coconut Lentil Soup with Lemongrass

Here's a recipe I've been playing around with for awhile. The inspiration was in Anne Sheasby's wonderful The Ultimate Soup Bible. My family liked her original recipe, but we all agreed it didn't have enough "punch," somehow. Here is our version. The great thing about this recipe is that it goes from 0 to dinner in under an hour. In our house, it cooks while the homework is getting done!

Col’s Coconut Lentil Soup with Lemongrass

2 medium Yellow Onions, chopped
2 tbsp Canola Oil
1 Serrano Pepper or 2 Thai Chili Peppers, seeded and chopped
1 tbsp Ginger, freshly grated
3 Garlic Cloves, sliced
1 tsp Ground Cumin
1 tsp Ground Coriander Seed
1 tsp Paprika
1/2 tsp Cayenne Pepper
1 cup Red Lentils*
14 oz can of Coconut Milk (regular, not light)
4 cups Vegetable Stock (homemade if possible; water will also work)
1 stick Lemongrass, bruised with a mallet (kids love this job)
3 tblsp Fresh Lime Juice (about 3 lime halves)
4 tblsp Scallions, chopped
1/4 cup Cilantro Leaves, chopped (if you hate cilantro, Thai basil would work)
Salt, to taste


Heat oil in dutch oven. Add onions, peppers, ginger and garlic to soften, not brown. Add dried spices to warm (1 minute), then add lentils. Add coconut milk, lemongrass and stock. Bring to a boil and cook about 45 minutes, until lentils totally break down. Remove lemongrass. Puree with a stick blender. Put back on heat, add lime juice, half scallions and half cilantro. Adjust seasonings. Salt to taste. Garnish individual bowls with remaining cilantro, scallions and lime slices.

*Red lentils are found in Indian and Middle Eastern groceries, and in well stocked supermarkets. You can't substitute brown lentils in this recipe, as they take far longer to cook.

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

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: A Hopeful Sign

Found yesterday after a short thaw: a daffodil!

To participate in the Saturday Snapshot meme bloggers are asked to post a photo that
they (or a friend or family member) have taken, then leave a direct link to your post on the Saturday Snapshot site. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. All she asks is that you don't post random photos that you find online.

Thanks to Alyce at At Home With Books for hosting!!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Book Review: A Long, Long Time Ago, and Essentially True

Brigid Pasulka’s A Long, Long Time Ago, and Essentially True reminded me of why I am a reader. Because reading puts you in touch with the endless possibilities of the human condition.

The story is told in two voices and in two time frames, but both are set in motion by the same small miracle: one man’s enduring love for a beautiful young woman. The Pigeon loves Anielica so completely that he wants to make the world a perfect place for her. He starts by turning her father’s hut into a house worthy of her. But after the Germans roll through Poland at the beginning of the Second World War, the Pigeon works to change Poland itself, as a member of the Polish Resistance.

The second story takes place in post-Soviet Krakow, and is told by “Baba Yaga,” a young woman who has recently lost her beloved grandmother. She is living with some of her only relatives, Irena and her daughter Magda. While they are kind – in their bantering way – to the country cousin, Baba Yaga seems rudderless and apathetic. In fact, it was her story that gave me a slow start with this novel, as I kept wondering what this boring little bar girl had to do with the heroic, romantic events in the older narrative.

I am so happy I stuck with it.

A Long, Long Time Ago, and Essentially True is ultimately a novel about the ingenuity and perseverance of the Polish people. Pasulka tells that story beautifully and with great depth of feeling, as when Anielica’s brother tries to convince her that the Pigeon will return safely to them:

”I was in the woods with him for five years, and there was never anything he couldn’t manage. We just need to wait a little while longer, and I’m sure he will be back any time now.” But the words coming from his mouth were too abundant to be reassuring. Reassuring words were tall, sparse, stoic. “Don’t be silly.” “He’s fine.” Trust me.” But Anielica did not press. She knew that her brother was worried too. She had noticed the furrows in his forehead deepening, his eyebrows slowly creeping upward for the past hour. Kindle location 4488

And while many reviews have described this book as “sad,” what I thought Pasulka captured best was the profound ability of the Polish people to find happiness despite history. Happiness in small things. In a wedding shared with 9 other couples in a post-war Poland with too few priests and too many deferred dreams. In an open-air bed. In a secret shared between sweethearts.

This is a wonderful book. In addition to the gripping storylines, the book also offers a glimpse into the recent history of Poland, which I found fascinating. In fact, it made me realize I need to learn more about the post-war years in Eastern Europe in general, and Poland in particular. I would absolutely recommend it to those love contemporary literary fiction, as well as those whose tastes run to historical fiction and even to lighter romances – there’s something here for those in any of those groups.

This book counts for a “Size” in the What’s in a Name 4 Challenge, and is my first book for this year’s Eastern European Reading Challenge at The Black Sheep Dances. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads and Amy for hosting!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

New Cookbook Romance: Vegan Fire and Spice

Last week I was thinking about cookbook marriage: the cookbook relationships that last, that stand the test of time, that aren’t so sexy but are oh-so-reliable. But this week I’m thinking about the beginning of the relationship: that first flush of cookbook romance.

You know how it is. A new cookbook enters your life. Maybe you sought it out after reading reviews. Maybe you asked for a recipe after a potluck, and received a glowing review. Maybe the cover art grabbed you as you browsed in your favorite bookstore. Suddenly, you’re hooked.

New cookbooks, like new romances, occupy your time. This week I received Robin Robertson’s Vegan Fire and Spice. This is a book I researched, for two reasons. First, although I’m an omnivore, our family is committed to shifting to a more plant-based diet – Mark Bittman calls this approach “flexitarianism.” Second, I’m at the age where the things I eat have health consequences. Many vegetarian cookbooks rely on cheese and dairy products to replace some of the richness of a meat-based diet – I wanted to learn a different approach.

Like a new romance, new cookbooks expand your horizons. Reading them stimulates new ideas, diversifying – and hopefully improving – your cooking style. Last night I accompanied my family’s favorite meatloaf with a vegan potato salad I wouldn’t have thought of putting together, thanks to Fire and Spice. Robertson’s Veracruz Potato salad includes capers, cilantro and Serrano peppers, and is coated in lime vinaigrette. Of course, new romances, cookbook and real, require compromise, and I played around with the vinaigrette portion of the recipe, knowing what my family likes. And the salad was, indeed, a huge success – I’m already looking forward to the leftovers in my lunchbox on Monday!

I have another meal from this cookbook on the menu tonight: Japanese Soba Noodles. It includes ingredients my family loves, and I’m always trying to expand the grain menu beyond rice and wheat. We’ll see how it goes. Right now, Vegan Fire and Spice looks like it has serious work horse potential. But I also know these things take time to figure out! If the book is showing some wear-and-tear in the next few months, I’ll know this is the beginning of a long-term relationship in the kitchen!

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

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

Remember how you felt the first time you read Homer? Stretched and slightly confused, but in a good way? Reading Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony gave me that feeling again – for the first time in a long time.

Calasso’s landmark work is not just a retelling of the Greek myths – although the myths are central to the book. Rather, Calasso puts the myths, and their evolution, into perspective. Starting with Zeus’ rape of Europa, Calasso explores the Greek world’s uneasy relationship with their gods, and thereby tries to explain their relationship to the world.

Calasso finds patterns and subtle differences in familiar stories that I never noticed before. He writes poetically and persuasively. Speaking of the disaster wrought by the necklace given to Harmony by her mother Aphrodite for her wedding, Calasso explains the irony:

What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories. (p. 387)

This is a very enjoyable but by no means light read. First, the text assumes a fundamental understanding of ancient Greece’s philosophical terms. For a mythologist, this is just jargon. For me, it required a lot of trips to the dictionary – along with Wikipedia, I must admit. Likewise, even though I have a pretty good background in Classics, there were many myths and characters – especially from the older Greek Pantheon – with which I was unfamiliar. Again, these required a good deal of cross reference to understand Calasso’s arguments. Lastly, there’s the problem of chronology – while the book has numbered chapters, the structure is hard to understand. Some paragraphs seemed to bear no relationship to the paragraphs before or after them. I think this was intentional on the author’s part, hoping to emulate a kind of discussion with the reader. But there were times when I simply found it disorienting.

I would urge anyone with an interest in Classics or Greek mythology to read this book. I read it looking for a non-fiction title about mythology for the Read-A-Myth Challenge, and I would highly recommend it to the other participants in that challenge. I would simply urge readers to be patient – it’s not a book to be devoured in a day or two. I found myself reading a section, reflecting, sometimes re-reading and referencing, and then finally moving on. There’s just so much information here that I think to plow through it would be a disservice to Calasso’s accomplishment. Reading this book really will give you a completely different perspective on myths you thought you knew.

Thanks so much to JoV and Bina for hosting the Read-A-Myth Challenge! If you have room in your challenge schedule, I think you'll learn a lot from this one!

Since Calasso's treatise is about Greek mythology, and not a retelling of myth, I think it also counts for the Dewey Decimal Challenge! Thanks to Jen for hosting.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Blogger Hop: What Am I Reading?

Book Blogger Hop

Today's Book Blogger Hop at Crazy for Books asks, “What are you reading now and why are your reading it?”

This week I’m tackling Brigid Pasulka’s A Long, Long Time Ago, and Essentially True. I read a review of it at The Black Sheep Dances,* and it sounded like just my type of book, both romantic and historical, and about a country I know very little about, Poland. It’s taking some time to get into it, but I actually have more time to read during the week. This counts for the What’s in a Name 4 Challenge and the Eastern European Reading Challenge.

I’m also planning to finish Robert Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony for the Read A Myth Challenge. This book is an academic treatment of the “utility” of the Greek gods in ancient culture, and uses the gradual shifts in the familiar stories to explicate changes in Greek society. I’ve found it very enjoyable, just a bit dense – I have to read it in small doses.

Thanks to Crazy-for-Books for sponsoring the Book Blogger Hop. Have a wonderful reading week!


*At least I think it was on The Black Sheep Dances. I went to link to it and couldn't find it, so you'll have to correct me if I'm wrong, Amy!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Cookbooks I Couldn’t Live Without

I have a LOT of cookbooks, collected throughout the years, on a bookshelf in the dining room. Yesterday, one of my daughter’s friends asked a reasonable question: “Do you use all those?”

The answer was, not surprisingly, “No.”

Some cookbooks were gifts from friends who think of me and think “cookbook.” Some of the spines on those don’t appear to have been opened, although some others have a recipe or two that I go back to over and over again. Stephen Langlois’ Prairie: Cuisine from the Heartland is one of those, a gift from my Midwestern mother-in-law when I joined the family. The book opens automatically to Kansas City Strip Steaks with Herbed Maytag Blue Cheese Sauce. That one recipe secures its place on the shelf forever.

Other cookbooks were souvenirs of trips where the local cuisine had a dish that we wanted to be able to make at home. I bought Jan Robinson’s Ship to Shore after a trip to Barbados. I bought it for the Vanity Punch recipe – it’s a classic rum punch – but found the recipes from ships’ galleys fit my little Manhattan apartment so perfectly that it got a real workout for a while. Now it only comes off the shelf for cocktails and appetizers, though. Time has marched on.

So which are the work horse cookbooks of my current kitchen? Looking at the shelf, they’re easy to locate, battered and splattered and loved to dog-ears:

Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker’s Joy of Cooking. This is the present I give as a shower gift to young couples who are just starting out in the kitchen, because it has a basic recipe for virtually anything you bring home from the market.

Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. That book is out at least 2 or 3 nights a week. I love how every Bittman recipe is a starting point for endless variation on a theme. Having the book in the house helps me face the farmer’s market without fear, knowing that whatever beautiful veggie I bring home, I’ll have a recipe for it!

Anne Sheasby’s The Ultimate Soup Bible. This gorgeous Barnes & Noble title looks like a coffee table book, but has 400 soup recipes from around the world. It’s the kind of book you love having when your kid grabs “Malaysia” for the school’s international food fair. It even has a brilliant section of cold soups for summer. Sadly out of print now, if you find a copy, buy it!

Diane Seed’ Top 100 Pasta Sauces and Andrew Schloss with Ken Bookman’s While the Pasta Cooks share the pasta work horse chores. Seed’s book is a thin but comprehensive look at Italy’s regional pasta sauces – traditional and superb. Schloss’ book is the opposite – he often turns to non-traditional ingredients in his quick-fix dishes. It’s a great way to reduce your meat budget, while still getting the flavor, as in a pasta dish ½ pound of fish easily feeds a family of four.

Finally, Lorna Sass’ Pressure Perfect, recommended by a colleague when I invested in a pressure cooker, has become my go-to weeknight comfort food guide, for things like ribs, or stew or bean dishes. I cannot believe I lived without a pressure cooker for so long. Sass’ comprehensive guide to dried beans in the pressure cooker – which are so much tastier than canned – have earned it a place on my dining room bookshelf.

So how about you? What cookbooks can’t you live without? I’d love to hear about them!

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

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: Ice in the Garden

Saturday Snapshot is a meme hosted by Alyce of At Home With Books. I have been meaning to participate for some time, and today I decided to jump in.

I love the tangle of garden in winter.

To participate in the Saturday Snapshot meme bloggers are asked to post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post on the Saturday Snapshot site. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. All she asks is that you don't post random photos that you find online.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Review: Supreme Courtship

Humor is about the hardest thing to translate. You have to really understand a culture to crystallize the humor in it. Christopher Buckley, ultimate Washington insider,* really understands life “inside the beltway.”** Which is why he manages to make “nine old farts sending footnotes to each other” –a.k.a. the US Supreme Court – seem hilarious! Well, at least hilarious some of the time. And maybe that’s all you can expect from political satire.

The premise here is great. President Vanderkamp, a terribly earnest and therefore thoroughly disliked Ohioan, becomes miffed when two of the finest jurists of the age are turned down for a seat on the Supreme Court because Dexter Miller, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants the job himself. Throwing caution to the wind for once, he nominates TV judge Pepper Cartwright, a wisecracking, gun-toting, Prada-wearing Texas icon to the Court.*** Along with the arcane nature of Constitutional law, Buckley also expounds on reality TV, populism, and the nature of marriage. There’s something here for everyone, especially news junkies.

Part of the book works beautifully. There’s one exchange among justices made up almost entirely of Latin legalese that had me laughing out loud in the library. And Silvio Santamaria, clearly a send-up of the most despicable justice with whom I share an alma mater – Antonin Scalia – is a brilliant tribute to excess:

He was brilliant, with a wit as caustic as drain cleaner; good company if you were in his camp and look out if you weren’t. Silvio Santamaria didn’t take yes for an answer. He didn’t disagree—he violently opposed. Didn’t demur—he went for your throat. Didn’t nitpick—disemboweled you and flossed his teeth with your intestines. First-timers appearing before the Court for oral argument had been known to wet their pants and even faint under his withering questions and commentary (p. 71).

I actually hope Buckley gets back to Santamaria in another book – the character deserved more time!

Unfortunately, not all of the book hangs together that well. The romantic angle of the novel was weak – so weak it made me squirm a bit. And Latina bombshell Ramona Alvilar represented a very nasty and hackneyed stereotype. At times it seemed like a long time between laughs. But then, this is a novel about the Supreme Court, where things change at a glacial pace. Perhaps that’s what he was going for?

If you like Buckley’s other books, you definitely will not be disappointed with Supreme Courtship, as I wasn’t. It just wasn’t as sharp as Thank You for Smoking, or as gut-wrenchingly funny as Boomsday, but it does represent a broadening of social themes for Buckley, which I enjoyed. A solid 3 out of 5 stars – probably 4 if you’re the kind of person who actually enjoys watching 24-hour news channels when there’s no particular disaster to follow.

This counts for the Book Blogger Abroad 2011 Challenge, as it was recommended by yours truly! So thanks to Judith at leeswammes for hosting!

*Yes, Christopher Buckley’s work stands on its own, but it’s hard to separate his political sensibility from the fact that his father was William F. Buckley, Jr., which makes him a true American political scion. I probably wouldn’t agree with either man on anything, including day of the week, just on principle. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Buckley was raised on this stuff, and can be funny about it.

**That’s Washington, DC, for those of us outside the beltway. People in DC are so inside the beltway they don’t even realize that other cities HAVE beltways.

*** Think Sarah Palin on the Supreme Court and you have the idea, although Buckley actually finished the book before John McCain plucked the woman who could see Russia from her house out of Alaska and onto the national scene.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Book Review: Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography

Many people who know my politics assume my daughter Eleanor is named after a famous American first lady. Far from it. She’s actually named for an infamous duchess: Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Of course, infamous is in the eye of the beholder, and virtually every contemporary account describing Eleanor’s escapades was inked by a man. Which is why I so appreciated reading Marion Meade’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography, a book that seeks to illuminate this amazing woman, both through painstaking research* and the intuitive piecing together of events that history left unrecorded. Meade’s attempt to see events from Eleanor’s perspective isn’t perfect, but it probably brings the reader closer to the truth than contemporary, male-oriented accounts ever could.

Brilliant, wealthy and impetuous, Eleanor – along with the land’s she herself controlled in Languedoc (now southern France) – represented the dynastic marital jackpot of twelfth century Christendom. Her father’s untimely death on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela prompted her hasty marriage to Louis of France. Meade speculates on the rationale for their marital problems quite extensively – and I think pretty persuasively – based on the very different relationship she maintained with her second husband, Henry of England. Before she managed a divorce from Louis on the well-established grounds of consanguinity (a burden the Pope had already removed), she gave him two daughters, one of whom was Marie of Champagne, patron to Chretien de Troyes.

With her second husband she had many more children, including two kings of England, Richard the Lionhearted and the ignominious John, who eventually was forced by his unhappy nobles to sign the Magna Carta. But it certainly wasn’t a “love” match, and their family feuding eventually took on civil war proportions, with some of the children siding with Eleanor and the king of France against Henry.**

While Eleanor has mostly been framed by the size of her patrimony, the depth of her perfidy and the acts of her progeny, what struck me most in reading Meade’s biography was her prodigious energy! She never seemed to stop moving, covering thousands of miles throughout her realm, even in years when she was pregnant. She represented a gentle touch to her subjects, probably a much needed one, considering Henry’s heavy hand. And she didn’t slow down much over her long life. The woman was crossing the Pyrenees on horseback at close to 80 years old, securing a granddaughter’s marriage and sealing a peace treaty!

Meade paints what I consider a deserving portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine. To do this, she imagines motives and considers alternatives to “common knowledge.” Since male historians, many of them clerics with axes to grind, are the sources of the “common knowledge” about Eleanor, I can’t see any way around it, although as someone trained in historical method, I can see the potential problems with this strategy. I think anyone interested in medieval history will thoroughly enjoy this book, as well as those interested in history from a feminist perspective.

This book counts for the Dewey Decimal Challenge. My non-fiction kick is tearing that one up, but I'm moving on to a bit of fiction at this point! Thanks to Jen at the Introverted Reader for hosting.

*You know a book is painstakingly researched when your Kindle says you’ve read 86% of the book, and you’ve already arrived at the footnotes!

** Kind of makes the squabbles at your last family gathering seem like a walk in the park, doesn’t it?