Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: Sign of Spring

We had an unusual warm-up in Central PA this week -- temperatures rose into the low 70s, and the world seemed to wake up! I found this little sign of spring in the front yard, and wanted to share. Hope spring is springing where you are, too -- unless fall ought to be falling, that is!

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!!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Review: Pig Perfect

I love micro-histories, and I love food. So when my buddy Jess over at Desperado Penguin suggested Peter Kaminsky’s Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them as the subject our next simul-blog, I quickly signed on. Pork is a critical ingredient in at least two cuisines I adore* – Spain’s and the American South’s – and I’ve always wondered why the ham in those places just seems to taste better than the stuff I get at home.

Kaminsky explains that little mystery, and many more, in his comprehensive ode to the Ossabaw**, a compendium of all things porcine.

Let’s start with a fair warning: there is no doubt that some animals are necessarily harmed in the making of luscious pork loin and succulent hams. If you are uncomfortable with eating meat at all, and I know many people that are, you should probably avoid this book, not because it is ugly or graphic in any way, but because you have already made decisions that will make the logic of this book less tenable for you. I admire that.

But I should also add a statement of responsibility: the reason that people like Mario Batali and Michael Pollan have enthusiastically recommended this book is because it supports a kind of meat eating that is both sustainable and rare – the kind of meat-eating most likely practiced by humans for millennia. Pig Perfect, at its heart, is a tribute to flexitarianism. It agrees with animal rights activists that the current methods of mass producing animals are heinous, cruel, and environmentally destructive – that humans are simply getting far less out of livestock, energy-wise, than we are putting in. In fact, the environmental disasters that accompany large-scale pig-farming are well documented by Kaminsky.

Instead, Kaminsky looks at the paleo-biological, historical and social roots of humans’ love of pork. He also devotes a fascinating chapter to the pork taboos found in Jewish and Islamic cultures. Ultimately, Kaminsky comes down on the side of moderation, arguing that pigs and humans actually evolved to live together, and makes a compelling argument that Europe’s “primordial” forests were actually products of the human/pig/acorn relationship.
Roaming forest and field is what pigs were born to do. Long-legged pigs are the natural form of this animal, able to move nimbly through woodlands eating acorns and grasses. That they should be raised this way is as self-evident to me as the fact that cattle should be raised on grasslands and not in feedlots on corn and soy. Grazing (as well as rooting, in the case of pigs) is the natural way for these domesticated animals to sustain themselves and us. p. 112

I really liked most of Kaminsky’s message. I can’t say the same for the recipes, which just didn’t look so appetizing to me. And having persuasively advocated for people to be thoughtful consumers of pork products, I really would have appreciated a section on Internet resources for jamón ibérico or Southern hams. Seriously, why create a demand for something, and not help satisfy it? The people who helped him from the book, and might benefit from interest in their products, were poorly served by that omission.

Also, as a strategic communications professor, I was totally put off by his chapter called “The PR Guys,” in which he seemed to be amazed that one of the best studies of the pork industry in the US was produced by a PR firm –to which he attributes negative intentions, without any evidence on his part, even though he finds no fault with the history. It was disappointing to read something so totally biased from someone who prides himself of being a “journalist.” He seemed to miss the fact that half of the people that spoke to him for this book from various companies and farms were probably PR professionals, or performed PR functions in the companies in which they worked – um, that’s why they spoke to him, to get their story out there. Kaminsky seems to subscribe to the notion that it’s “information” when he likes you, and “PR” when he doesn’t. Sorry, he lost credibility with me at that point.

But, in general, I’ll say I agree with his main thesis – and I’ll mention that Kaminsky is not saying anything that Pollan and Mark Bittman haven’t been saying for some time: namely, that we have to be more responsible about what we eat. If we only eat a little meat, we can assure that it is of high quality, and insist that it is treated humanely. I can certainly appreciate that.

Another foodie simul-blog with the Desperado Penguin. Next time we need a title that doesn’t make me so hungry, Jess!

As a non-fiction title, this counts for the Dewey Decimal Challenge. Thanks to Jen at The Introverted Reader for hosting!

*I do share a lot of vegetarian and vegan recipes, but I hope I’ve always made it clear that I do eat a small amount of meat and fish. In fact, since I don’t eat a lot of meat, I go out of my way to enjoy what I do eat, by making sure it’s of high quality (usually organic) and sustainable, which is why this book was so interesting to me.

**An America
n pig breed that is apparently related to the original pigs left by the Spanish conquistadors and early missionaries. And also apparently, as Alton Brown might say, good eats.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Dead-of-Winter Vegan Fruit Muffins

This “no-animal-fat-until-5-PM” experiment I’ve been working on has been really interesting. According to Livestrong calculations, I’ve suddenly increased my fiber intake by 50% – and my cholesterol is about 20% of what it used to be. That’s probably because I’ve been actively seeking out vegan recipes. Eating vegan takes some time though – lots of veggies to chop, extra runs to the natural food store for ingredients I wouldn’t have had in the house before – and I’ve been looking for things I can make ahead.

Oh, and to complicate matters more, it’s winter – not exactly the time for local produce here in PA. Environmental concerns prick at my conscience when gorging on luscious fruit that had to travel farther than Christopher Columbus to reach me! So after reading a million recipes, I’ve come up with one my kids love, totally vegan, using frozen fruit – which is largely domestic, and just as healthy as fresh, according to Mark Bittman! You can be eating these in under an hour!

Col’s Dead-of-Winter Vegan Fruit Muffins
1 cup sliced frozen peaches
1/2 cup frozen blueberries
2 cups all-purpose flour (healthier with 1/2 whole wheat, but not as yummy)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup canola oil
4 oz unsweetened applesauce
3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp pure almond extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds

Toss fruit with 2 tbsps flour. Mix dry ingredients together in a bowl. Mix together wet ingredient in a large measuring cup. Pour all at once into dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Fold in fruit. Use ice cream scoop to put batter into 18 muffin cups. Top with almonds, if desired. Bake in a 350 degree oven until brown, 25-35 minutes.


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, March 12, 2011

Hipster vs. Vintage Book Reviews: A Red Herring Without Mustard and Behold, Here's Poison

Within the past week I read two mysteries, Alan Bradley’s A Red Herring Without Mustard and Georgette Heyer’s Behold, Here’s Poison. Both of them were enjoyable, but very different. In fact, they really provided such a contrast in approach that I thought I’d review them together, because I think the comparisons say a lot about the individual authors’ styles.

I read Red Herring first. I’ve been waiting for it since I finished the second installment in the series The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, and it arrived on my Kindle the day it was released. Chemistry genius cum sleuth Flavia de Luce is thirteen now, still dueling wits with her (increasingly vile) sisters and trying to figure out her aloof father. Flavia’s first-person narration makes the series, frankly. She’s impetuous, sassy, and shrewd. But she’s also a child, so she doesn’t always completely understand the complex motives of the people around her. And she’s a bit sad and lonely, motherless because of her adventurous mother’s death when she was a baby. It makes for an oddly sympathetic combination – you just wish you could hug her, and tell her it’s going to be alright, but you know she’d blanch at the idea!

This time, Flavia is out to solve two crimes that she guesses are related: the beating of a gypsy who Flavia had invited to stay on a remote piece of the family estate, Buckshaw, and a the murder of local “tough” Brookie Harewood, whose body was artfully placed in the arms of Poseidon in a Buckshaw fountain. In the process she has to navigate a secretive sect of religious dissenters, the Hobblers, a ferocious London gypsy girl, and the estate’s arcane water system.

Red Herring is a mystery with lots of style. Because it’s part of a series, the characters are evolving in interesting ways, as Flavia begins to understand them more clearly. We are starting to see, for example, how very much Flavia’s father loves his family – and how very desperate he is to hold on to the family estate, which is at risk because of the onerous death duties owed to the government after his wife’s untimely death. Flavia’s sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, are evolving too, but in far less sympathetic fashion – in fact, I thought their evil was a bit “cartoonish” in this book. Inspector Hewitt’s fondness and respect for Flavia is growing, but so is his worry that she may be putting herself in danger. But the mystery itself in this one wasn’t so fantastic, I’m afraid. The chemistry tie-in was really weak, and the revelation of the murderer was anticlimactic. As for the title, I still don’t quite understand to what it alludes – unless it’s the fact that there are far more red herrings than actual clues to help the reader figure out the mystery. But it is a great title, isn’t it?

I followed up with my first book for My Reader’s Block’s Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. Georgette Heyer was not a name at all familiar to me – in fact, many of the female names on the list were unfamiliar – so I signed up for The Golden Girls Challenge, decided to read at least 5 different authors, and started investigating.

Behold, Here’s Poison is a classic, country estate mystery. It’s so 1930s – everyone dressed for dinner, speaking wittily, loathing each other with class. The Matthews family, run by their tyrannical Uncle Gregory, is not at all unhappy when he winds up dead – except for the fact that it appears one of them must have done it. Oily Randall Matthews, Gregory’s heir, seems a likely murderer – but he has an air-tight alibi. Mrs. Zoe Matthews and Miss Harriett Matthews both hoped to inherit his house, and have something of their own, finally. Mrs. Matthews’ children, Guy and Stella, are tired of having their uncle derail their life decisions. Did they kill him? There are other family members, and even neighbors, with axes to grind. The cast of characters is extensive, and the formality of address – Miss Matthews, Mrs. Matthews, Mr. Matthews –had me re-reading at the beginning to make sure I knew who was who, but the characters had such well developed personalities that the confusion didn’t last for long. In fact, the only character I found kind of dull was Inspector Hannasyde, the Scotland Yard detective in charge of the investigation. His personality hardly develops at all, but maybe that’s just as well, as it lets the suspects shine.

The mystery is the key thing in this book. It’s so darn clever. The clues were there, but I really didn’t see it coming, which is what I love in a mystery. It’s clear that Heyer did her research – the murder weapon is a surprise, very unique and devious. So I’d say this mystery is all about substance. The dialog is good, the characters are well-drawn, but in the end it’s the crime you remember, not what surrounds it. It was a great find.

Both of these mysteries were 4 star reads, for completely different reasons. Neither was a 5 star, though, because neither delivered the complete package: style and substance. Both authors are obviously capable of it though, and I’m anxious to read more from both authors. Thanks to Bev at My Reader’s Block for hosting!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: Rebecca

I had planned to read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca during A Literary Odyssey’s Read-Along in January. Unfortunately, I experienced a rare Total Library Fail – the wild, snowy conditions kept the book from being transferred between campuses, and I didn’t receive it until the Read-Along was nearly complete. It finally did arrive, though, and since I loved the Laurence Olivier/Joan Fontaine movie, and had always wanted to read the book anyway, I decided to add it to my GLBT Reading Challenge titles.

Du Maurier weaves a wonderful and haunting tale, told completely from the perspective of The Second Mrs. de Winter, Maxim’s young wife. This gives the book the air of a mystery, since the young bride is understandably in the dark about her husband Maxim’s life before she met him. It can also make things difficult on the reader, as The Second Mrs. de Winter is very short on self-esteem, so the reader is sometimes confused by and doubtful of her high society husband’s love for her, just as she is.

No surprise, I really enjoyed the book. But the movie made such a huge impression – and now having read the book I can see how true to the novel the film adaptation was to the book –I’m afraid the novel didn’t have a chance to stand on its own for me. I found my reading of it was totally dominated by the movie – kind of like The Second Mrs. de Winter is dominated by Rebecca. And that’s too bad, because Joan Fontaine was such a lovely actress, and I couldn’t make the frumpy, déclassé Second Mrs. de Winter “be” anyone else, so I think a bit of Du Maurier’s original intention was lost on me.*

There are some differences between the book and the movie, of course. In the book, it’s clear that Manderley is more than a setting – it’s the tangible symbol of the first de Winter marriage. That marriage was dominated by Rebecca, and Manderley remains awash in a wave of scrawling “Rs” attesting to her dominance. She turned Manderley into the showpiece that Maxim always dreamed it could be. So by taking his young wife back to Manderley, Maxim doesn’t actually start a new marriage – he really brings the Second Mrs. de Winter into his and Rebecca’s unresolved union:
Rebecca, always Rebecca. Wherever I walked in Manderley, wherever I sat, even in my thoughts and in my dreams, I met Rebecca. I knew her figure now, the long slim legs, the small and narrow feet. Her shoulders, broader than mine, the capable, clever hands. Hands that could steer a boat, could hold a horse. Hands that arranged flowers, made the modesl of ships, and wrote “Max from Rebecca” on the flyleaf of a book. I knew her face too, small and oval, the clear white skin, the cloud of dark hair. I knew the scent she wore, I could guess her laughter and her smile. If I heard it, even among a thousand others, I should recognise her voice. Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca. pg. 232

You can just feel the young bride’s distress and frustration in du Maurier’s evocative writing, can’t you?

And that’s really what I feel I got most out of finally reading Rebecca: an appreciation of du Maurier’s considerable writing abilities. I loved the way she slowly built the story through the narrator’s undependable narration. I am anxious to read Jamaica Inn now, as I haven’t seen either the movie or TV adaptation.

So I have finally knocked one book off for the GLBT Challenge! I’m glad I made small commitments to such a wide range of challenges this year, because it’s really pushing me to read some books I’ve neglected until now, like this one. Thanks to Amanda, Christina and Jen for hosting!

*This is why I’m a firm believer in book-before-movie timing! Gone with the Wind wouldn’t have been the same book if I’d been primed with wimpy Leslie Howard while I was reading it the first time. Why would Scarlett have fallen to pieces over him? When I read it, I had Robert Redford in mind – handsome and romantic, but also capable of toughness. I know, I know, but give me a break, I was reading it in the 70s.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Audiobook Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

If a book can be distilled to a chapter, a chapter distilled to a sentence, and a sentence distilled to a word, then the word for Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is “charming.” I listened to Frances McDormand’s narration of the audiobook, and I have to say it was wonderful.

Miss Pettigrew is the literary equivalent of a screwball comedy, and it’s easy to see why Persephone Books chose to pluck it from obscurity. Unemployed and unaccomplished governess Guinevere Pettigrew reports to what she believes is an interview for another dull position, only to be thrust into the glittering high society world of actress Delysia LaFosse. Miss Pettigrew quickly becomes an ally to Miss LaFosse, and an asset to her circle of friends, because of her quick wits and straight-forward style.

The book takes place over a one-day period, and we watch the dowdy, downtrodden Miss Pettigrew blossom with every small triumph. She can hardly believe her luck, and dreads the end of the wonderful day, when she believes all her fun must come to an end:

For years she had lived in other people’s houses, and had never been an inmate in the sense of belonging. And now, in a few short hours, she was blissfully and serenely at home. She was accepted. They talked to her. And how they talked. She had never heard the like before. Their ridiculous inconsequence. Every sentence was like a heady cocktail. The whole flavor of the remarks gave her a wicked feeling of sophistication. And the way she kept her end up. No one would ever dream that she was new to it. “I never believed,” thought Miss Pettigrew with pride, “that I had it in me.” (1:54:58, Audiobook).

You can’t help but root for Miss Pettigrew to embrace this new lifestyle on a permanent basis!

I imagine this was a rather racy book when it was first published in 1938, what with Miss LaFosse maintaining three love affairs at one time – I suppose that’s what makes it feel so “modern,” overall. However, it also contains some shocking cultural signs of its times, including ethnic slurs aimed at Italians and Jews, that are decidedly out of step in 2011. The character of Miss Pettigrew – the spinster who’s sure life has passed her by, only to find she may have one last chance at happiness – is truly timeless.

Frances McDormand, who played Miss Pettigrew in the 2008 movie (I haven’t seen it, but would really like to), reads this book beautifully. You can practically watch prim Miss Pettigrew’s hair come down through her narration. The men are gruff, but not overdone. The women’s voices are all very unique, and capture their personalities perfectly. This was really a perfect match between book and reader – McDormand’s comic timing enhances the book tremendously. I highly recommend it for those who love literary fiction, humor, and fiction about women. And if you’re thinking of trying an audiobook for the first time, I would definitely suggest this one – it will give you an idea of how pleasant the experience of listening to a book can be. This is one of only four Persephones available as audiobooks, and I certainly hope they will do more.

This book counts for a Life Stage in the What's in a Name 4 Challenge. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting. I'll be posting a link to this review on Audiobook Jukebox – if you’re looking for audiobook reviews, that’s the best place to start!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review: The Prophet

I love when books reference literature. Here’s an exchange I read a few weeks ago, as Pepper Cartwright sums up her feelings about her first, disastrous weeks as a Justice:

“As for embarrassment, I am way beyond that. On the other side of the wall of humiliation is liberation.”

Declan stared, “Kahlil Gibran or refrigerator magnet?”
~Christopher Buckley, Supreme Courtship

This exchanged made me realize something: the reason I usually enjoy those references is because I understand them. Getting the lit joke is part of my nerdy DNA. But not having read Gibran’s The Prophet, I wasn’t quite sure what Buckley was getting at. What’s a nerdy girl to do?

Well, making little headway with another book for Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge (which is still ongoing through the summer, and has no book limit, so check it out), I moved The Prophet to the top of my TBR pile. I’d read some reviews about this book, both positive and negative, and I really didn’t know what to expect. So I tried to go at it with an open mind.

The book consists of short essays on philosophical topics, related in the form of a discussion between the Prophet and the people of the city he is about to leave. The Prophet touches on the questions common to most religious traditions: love, work, sorrow, poverty, religion. What Gibran presents is basically a philosophy of kindness – kindness to yourself, kindness to others, kindness to the planet. His writing is gentle. His tone is caring. It’s easy to understand why so many people have loved this book. Originally published in 1923, it has never been out of print.

But I also understand where Buckley was coming from with the refrigerator magnet quip.

Gibran focuses on dualities throughout the essays. The aphorisms come fast and furious in this short text:

“To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam.”

“Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?”

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

You get the idea. Great stuff, but there comes a point of adage-overload that I reached about half-way through. And some of them are pretty abstruse:

“Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.”
I’m still trying to work the physics of that one out.

Overall, this is a lovely book. I can see why it came from a Lebanese author: it celebrates the humanistic convergence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and Lebanon was blessed to have large populations of Christians, Jews and Muslims living together for so much of its history. I liked it, but it was a bit much as a book – it would have been smarter to read the essays one at a time, like meditations to start or end the day. Still, it’s a classic for a reason, and if you haven’t read it, you really should.

You’ll get the jokes. But you might also get inspired.

So I have finally added to my Middle East Reading Challenge total: I’ve made it to four. Thanks so much to Helen for hosting! I still want to finish an Israeli title before July, and any suggestions would be welcome!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: Snorchids

Normally, I am something of brown thumb when it comes to houseplants. Somehow, the combination of low light and dry heat in my home doesn't favor most flora. Which is why I've been so surprised the past couple of years when I am greeted by this tropical explosion in my living room. My children have named them “snorchids,” because they rebloom after the first snow. The blooms generally last until the crocuses are pushing up, cheering up the wintery windowsill.

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!!