Saturday, July 27, 2013

Weekend Cooking Cookbook Review: THE MEAT FREE MONDAY COOKBOOK

This week I thought it was only fair to share a review of one of the books that led to last week’s “Rent Before Buying Cookbook Pledge.” The Meat Free Monday Cookbook: A Full Menu for Every Monday of the Year by the Meat Free Monday Campaign, Annie Riggs and Paul, Stella, & Mary McCartney was a cookbook I looked forward to reading. I admit, without hesitation, that a lot of that enthusiasm came from my fondness for Paul McCartney. He seems like such a nice, colossally rich, nice, vegetarian, nice, enormously talented, nice guy. If he contributed to the book, I reasoned, it must be very nice.

I also love the theory behind Sir Paul’s Meatless Monday campaign: get carnivores to give up meat one day a week. The benefits of this strategy are two-fold. First, it has the effect of immediately reducing meat intake, which is good for health and the environment. Second, and more importantly, it should have the long term effect of convincing carnivores that giving up meat is not really a sacrifice at all – in fact, lots of meals are completely delicious without it!

There is no doubt that the book is beautiful, as one might expect from the influence of the artistic McCartney clan. The presentation is unique -- rather than provide individual breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes for each season, 13 complete daily menus are presented for each season, including “packed lunch” and “lunch” (I assumed to eat at home) and dessert options, taking advantage of produce in season. The first thing I noticed is that there was no definite criteria for the lunches – some of the home lunches appeared simpler than the packed choices.

Another thing I noticed was that some daily menus didn’t provide much dietary diversity. For example, Spring Week 10 offered a packed lunch of Pasta with Spring Herbs and an at home lunch of Crunchy Cauliflower and Macaroni – so far, so good, although the packed lunch is supposed to be heated, and that’s not possible at every office. But then you turn to dinner for the same week, and the recipe is for Stir-Fry with Spring Vegetables and Noodles. Really? When you’re trying to convince carnivores that vegetarian fare is not bland or boring you suggest pasta for 3 meals in the same day? Autumn Week 2 suggested a potato Rosti for at home lunch, followed by dinner – which featured a side of potato salad. I don’t think most of us would plan family meals that way.

I have made some of the recipes from the book – the Rosti was really quite delicious. I wasn’t as successful with the Sicilian Cauliflower Pasta – as written the recipe was far too dry. It was easily saved by a can of diced tomatoes and some wine, but if you’d followed the recipe slavishly, it would have been inedible. One of the biggest disappointments was that some of the celebrity contributions had a “phoned in” feel. Sir Paul, all around nice guy, contributed the Winter Week 12 breakfast offering: Toasted Bagel with Hummus. It may well be his favorite breakfast, but did I really need to pay $20 for that recipe? No.

Bottom line, had I taken this book out from the library first, I wouldn’t have purchased it. Meat Free Mondays is really geared for complete veggie-phobes, something I definitely am not. Or perhaps those who simply don’t know how to cook without meat – but that’s something I do far more often than not. It’s not a total loss – I made both the Rosti recipe and the Glamorgan Sausages more than once, and they are now part of my repertoire. But lesson learned: Rent before Buying!

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

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


Friday, July 26, 2013

YOU DESERVE NOTHING by Alexander Maksik

The one word that comes to mind when I think back on Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing is “rubbernecking.” Reading the book gave me the sensation of being stuck in a traffic jam on a hot evening. One of those epic Long Island traffic jams, where everyone is trying to get home from Jones Beach at the same time. You can see the screaming lights of the police and fire vehicles up ahead, and you know it’s going to be bad when you finally get there – but you still want to get there, so you can go past. You don’t want to look as your car finally inches single file past the disaster. But your eyes are drawn to it, and you crane your neck to see signs of life, to assure yourself that it’s all going to be alright. Unfortunately, you’re left with the empty feeling that sometimes things are not alright after all.

It’s clear from the first pages that ex-pat superteacher William Silver isn’t what he appears to be on the surface. Serene and confident in the classroom, his inner world roils with some kind of agonizing remorse. He manages to hold himself together during the day, making ancient authors come to life for his high school students, infusing their days with idealistic lessons about social justice. He makes them believe they have the power to change society. Some of them feel like they can never measure up. Others believe societal conventions no longer apply to them.

The novel is beautifully written from alternating first-person perspectives: Will’s own, nymphet high schooler Marie’s, and that of a new student at the tony English academy in Paris where he teaches, Gilad. At first I thought the third voice was superfluous. But I realized that Gilad was there to show us the collateral damage caused when adults behave badly. Late in the novel, 17-year-old Gilad wrestles with his inability to protect his mother from his abusive father:

That night I stayed in my room. I pissed out the window into the courtyard below. I read. I walked back and forth. I held the door handle. Imagined opening it. Breaking down their door. Cross the fucking room. Dig down. Push. Go.

But I was a coward. I stayed where I was. I looked out into the night and put it all away. I looked out my window and knew that Silver, somewhere in the city, was in his apartment. He’d be reading. Listening to John Coltrane or something. Or at his desk, grading papers. Writing poems maybe. The light low, a beautiful bare-shouldered woman reading on the couch. There he was living his honorable life. I saw it clear as anything. (p. 196-197)

The novel’s conclusion is clear from a first, fateful phone call. And yet that didn’t stop me from turning the pages, because I was so interested in what the characters would do with the situation. This is a very intense novel, not at all light, but moving and well-crafted. But I would definitely say you need to be in a quiet, contemplative mood to get the most out of it. I’d recommend it for lovers of contemporary literary fiction, but I also think the strong voices of the teenagers would make it a logical choice for young adult readers. My 19-year-old daughter picked it up after me, and said she was enjoying it.

Dealing with my mother’s illness took me out of the blogging loop for a good part of the past year. So I’m finally entering the Europa Editions Reading Challenge at the Ristretto level for 2013, even though I’m hopeful I’ll finish more than 2 titles before December. I continue to be so impressed by the imprint and the fantastic authors they represent that I wouldn’t want to miss the challenge! Thanks so much to Marie of Boston Bibliophile for creating the challenge.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

COLD COMFORT FARM by Stella Gibbons

One of the things about being generally regarded by your friends and family as “well read” is this: you are subject to stares of utter disbelief when you admit to not having read a book that someone else consider “classic.” “YOU haven’t read Kafka on the Shore? I can’t believe it! You went on and on about The Belly of Paris last month, and you haven’t even read Murakami? Even my Cousin Waldo the Luddite has read THAT one!”

It’s kind of hard not to take it personally.

One of the books that I routinely got berated for not reading was Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. English friends in particular could not believe this galling oversight in my reading biography. So needing a 20th Century classic for the Back to the Classics 2013 Challenge over at Sarah Reads Too Much, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Finally, I realize why everyone was amazed that I’d waited so long to read this book. There aren’t too many novels I’ve found as absurdly funny as Cold Comfort Farm. And believe me, that’s saying something. Because absurdly funny is one of my favorite things.

The novel is mostly set in rural Sussex in the early part of the 20th century. Flora Poste, an orphan at 19 and possessing a tiny inheritance and virtually no work ethic, decides her best course of action is to sponge off her distant relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. The Starkadders agree to take her in because they seem to believe that they have some grave wrong to make up to her – a wrong about which she has absolutely no clue. However, on arrival, she finds her inherent need for tidiness immediately assaulted by the very messy condition of the Starkadders lives, due mostly to the imperious machinations of the formidable matriarch of the family, Aunt Ada Doom. So she immediately sets to work solving the Starkadders various problems.

The novel has a large and sometimes confusing cast of characters, complete with ridiculous and evocative names and neuroses to match. Flora puts her city street smarts to bear on the bucolic chaos, arranging and rearranging marriages, careers and personal habits. Her snarky insights and polite inability to take no for an answer were hilarious – she sort of reminded me of Katherine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby: ditzy like a fox!

It is Flora’s great strength that she sees clearly who her kin are, and works her fixes for them without ever trying to change their natures. Local gigolo Seth, for example, has fantastic looks, no brains and a desire to be the center of attention. Flora’s solution? Make a matinee idol out of him! So she arranges a meeting between Mr. Neck, the producer, and her wayward cousin:

A silence fell. The young man stood in the warm light of the declining sun, his bare throat and boldly moulded features looking as though they were bathed in gold. His pose was easy and graceful. A superb self-confidence radiated from him, as it does from any healthy animal. He met Mr. Neck’s stare with an impudent stare of his own, his head lowered and slightly forward. He looked exactly what he was, the local sexually successful bounder. Millions of women were to realize, in the next five years, that Seth could be transported in fancy to a Welsh mining village, a shoddy North country seaside town, a raw city the plains of the Middle West, and still remain eternally and unchangeably the local irresistible bounder.
(pg. 184)

I loved watching Flora’s plans come together, and laughed out loud at her insights more than once. I did find the dialect that the cousins’ dialogue was written in a bit slow going, but it didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the story. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves British comedy. And to anyone tired of the incredulous looks – it’s quite painless to banish them in this case!

Okay, better late than never for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I am finally on the board. Thanks to Sarah for hosting.

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

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Rent Before Buying Cookbook Pledge

I have to admit it. I have a problem. A cookbook problem, that is. I look at a cookbook, especially one with the delightful pictures and chatty backstories about the recipes, and all I see are endless possibilities. The problem comes in when I actually get the book home, and realize that I’m changing all the recipes anyway, or that it take hours to prepare each one so the book is relegated to weekend cooking or that I just don’t share the taste of the author. And the cookbook, rather than become a source of entertainment and inspiration, becomes a dust collector. Or a paper weight. Or a coaster.

I have found this to be a particular problem with “celebrity chef” cookbooks. I like their shows, and even try some of the recipes. But when I have received their cookbooks, I don’t find I use them very often. Giada’s Family Dinners never excited my family (if you have an herb garden, great. But 3 or four different fresh herbs for every meal really ads up in winter in PA). Mario Batali’s Simple Italian Food was anything but simple, at least in the ingredient department (guanciale is just not as common as you might think outside of Manhattan as Mario thinks). Still, despite the fact that I get three cooking magazines monthly, I love nothing better than to cuddle up with a good cookbook.

What’s a voracious reader to do? Rent!

That’s right. Instead of sneaking a peak at a few of Amazon’s “Look Inside” pages, I am trying a new tactic. Here’s my pledge: I’m not buying a cookbook until I’ve cooked at least three recipes out of it, liked them all without infinite tweaking, and found the types of ingredients used fit my budget, my aesthetics, my area of the country and my time constraints.

Admittedly, I am aided in this challenge by having one of the most amazing library systems in the country at my beck and call. Turns out there is virtually no book I have thought of that at least one university in the increasingly poorly named Big 10 has not purchased already. Nigella Lawson? No problem. Jacques Pepin? Got it. James Beard? Everyone. And it’s not just classics and best sellers. The Hospitality Management (a.k.a. Hotel and Restaurant) programs at the various universities require students to research all kinds of cooking trends. So browsing the catalog I’ve come across The Sriracha Cookbook, The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent, and The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.

This week I’m trying out Nigella Express. And I’m waiting to hear about an interlibrary loan for Chocolate & Zucchini.

The question for Weekend Cooking readers is this: What cookbooks should I rent next? Thanks for any suggestions you can offer!

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

Friday, July 19, 2013

THE CROWN and THE CHALICE by Nancy Bilyeau

Careful folks, I’m about to gush! I enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau’s The Crown and its sequel, The Chalice, that much!

I think the best thing a historical novel can do is take a historical situation we’re all familiar with in some broad sense – say, the Great Depression or the Fall of the Roman Empire – and give the reader an idea of what it would actually be like to be one of the myriad people caught up in the historical circumstance. Not necessarily the people making the policy or winning the wars – there’s plenty of great academic history written about the kings, queens, presidents and popes that set the world spinning in one direction or another. Rather, I generally prefer historical novels in which those characters are secondary to “real people” who are dealing with the circumstances that they have purposefully or accidentally created. That is what Nancy Bilyeau has done with Sister Joanna – given us a window into what it would be like to live through Henry VIII’s brutal suppression of the Catholic Church.

By the way of backstory, one of the best seminars I ever took as an undergraduate was called “Tudor-Stewart Britain,” taught by a professor who was taken from the world far too early, Michael Foley. Needless to say, the

Dissolution of the Monasteries was a topic we discussed A LOT in that class. But I don’t think I ever really thought about what that would mean for the nuns, priests and brothers forced from their convents and abbeys until I read Bilyeau’s fantastic books. Through Sister Joanna, a young and brilliant Domincan novice from an old and landed family that had run afoul of the grasping Tudors, we get a real sense of what Henry’s policies, designed for the preservation of the tenuous Tudor dynasty, actually did to the people impacted by them.

In The Crown, Joanna goes through the first stage of mourning for her lost world: disbelief. She believes that events will somehow be turned around. And as it turns out, oily Bishop Gardiner of Winchester thinks he can use her relationship to Dartford Abbey to find the legendary Athelstan Crown, which has the magical power to bring Henry VIII – and his reforms – down. The book reads like a historical mystery, as we watch Sister Joanna try to figure out the mystery of where the crown may be kept. But there are other mysteries going on in the abbey as well, including the strange behavior of some of Joanna’s fellow novices. Oh, and there’s also a handsome, mysterious stranger who seems to have a knack for saving Joanna’s life. And a couple of displaced monks who help provide her with clues. I found it a total page-turner, even though I know how the history turns out, obviously, so we know going in that Sister Joanna can’t possibly succeed in ending the reforms she opposes so deeply.

By The Chalice, Joanna has moved onto the next phase of mourning: anger. Evicted from her abbey, and unwilling to live with her Stafford cousins, she is forced to try and make her way in the world – not a simple thing for an unmarried woman in Tudor England. She is not without means, being a distant relative of the king, and is able to come up with the money to buy a loom and begin a tapestry business. But the magical arc of the story continues, with a prophesy that indicates that she is the one who is meant to change the course of history. The only thing is, she has to willingly hear the second two parts of the prophesy, and she is not willing to be drawn into the fray again. But, of course, history intervenes, and her fury eventually leads her back into the Tudor Court – and eventually into the path of the famous mystic, Nostradamus.

I liked The Chalice even better than The Crown, because all the layers of intrigue helped illustrate how the English Reformation was viewed not only within England, but in other countries. Bilyeau also expanded the cast of characters, giving us insight into how dangerous the world of even the Tudor’s closest confidants could be if they appeared to be at all disloyal. The action never stopped – in fact, I read it cover to cover on a plane ride back from London. Having just seen Salisbury Cathedral, which was partially destroyed during the dissolution, I had an easy time imagining exactly what Sister Joanna had lost, and why she would be so frustrated by its loss.

The characters are beautifully drawn, but not at all black and white. Everyone’s motives are suspect – even Joanna’s at some points. Obviously, having left the abbey, there is more room for romance in the second novel, and constable Geoffrey Scoville seems like a likely candidate. But former friar Edmund Sommerville is also clearly smitten with Joanna. And when the romantic plot gets twisted up with the mystical prophesy plot and the historical facts, Bilyeau manages to weave it all together like a beautiful tapestry. It was the kind of book that I was sad to finish, because I knew if it was on a book tour, the next book in the series probably wasn’t out yet! It kept me that interested.

I definitely have to thank Audra at Unabridged Chick, one of the book blogger world’s go-to people for historical fiction. Her earlier review of The Chalice really piqued my interest, and when she mentioned it was the second book in a series, I mentally put them on both on my TBR. About a week later I found out they were on a TLC book tour and jumped on the proverbial bandwagon. I received a complimentary copy of both books – and only the books – in return for my honest opinion. Thanks, as always, to Lisa for including Col Reads on the tour. For other opinions on this fantastic title, please look here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Godiva by Nicole Galland

Maybe because I studied medieval history as an undergraduate, historical novels set in that era have a particular fascination for me. I love trying to imagine characters that I know from chronicles and legends take on personal details and emotional lives that their original biographers wouldn’t have been interested in – and even if they were, they might not have recorded for political reasons. This is particularly salient when it comes to medieval women. With some notable exceptions – mostly saints and queens – women operated below the level of interest for those recording histories during the medieval period. This is hardly surprising, since many of those writers were clergy, and had very little interaction with women at all. Which is a long explanation for why I was really looking forward to reading Nicole Galland’s Godiva -- and why I truly enjoyed it too, even though it takes more a feminist turn than I think would be historically accurate.

First, the fabulous. Galland does a really fantastic job of writing about an actual friendship between historical women. Godiva, Countess of Mercia, is a long-time friend of Edgiva, the Abbess of Leominster and also a member of the tenuous royal family. This book actually passes the famous Bechdel* test: the book has two female characters; they talk to each other; and they don’t always discuss a man. It’s surprising how many historical fiction novels centered on women don’t pass that test. In this case, Godiva and Edgiva are united in their opposition to an unfair tax, the heregold, which ultimately results in the great Lady’s infamous ride. This is actually a twist on the original story, in which Godiva defies her husband with her ride, but I liked the arc of the story better with Godiva opposing the king, rather than her husband.

Next, the quibbles. The novel takes place at the end of the Anglo-Saxon era in England, when England was culturally more a Scandinavian country than a Continental one, with powerful earls like Leofric of Mercia, Godiva’s husband, loosely held together by an essentially foreign king, Edward the Confessor. Galland uses this fact to justify Godiva’s seemingly modern attitudes and behavior. (Less than 20 years after the events detailed in this book, William the Conqueror and the Normans overran the island and brought closer ties to the Catholic Church.) But while I’ll certainly concede women had more property rights in the Anglo-Saxon era, nothing I’ve ever read, including Sigred Undset’s painstakingly researched Kristenlavransdatter trilogy, indicates that women had the kind of autonomy – economic and sexual – that Godiva wields at any time in Europe until at least the 1970s. For me, that gave the book an anachronistic feel – or maybe it would be better to call it a “New Age” feel, kind of like Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon or Tobin’s Ice Land, rather than a traditional historical novel.

For example, at one point, Godiva tries to convince one of her husband’s rivals of her availability:

“I am barren,” she whispered. “Not that I was desperate for motherhood anyhow, in this world where someone else nurses the babe and someone else yet raises it. Where is the motherhood in that? No wonder the likes of Queen Emma became such a heartless and conniving monster. My very womb rebelled against it early. So you see, there is not the slightest danger of embarrassment to Leofric, and he knows I would never make a fool of myself.” (p. 58)

The problem is, that was motherhood back then. The current conception of motherhood as nurturing and child-focused is just that – modern. What would have been Godiva’s basis for comparison? It seems too progressive a statement for a time when even wealthy women had trouble living through childbirth and children’s life expectancies were brutally short. Nursing and fostering were thought to benefit the children and the family. From what does the childless Godiva construct her alternative motherhood? As Ralph Linton said, “The last thing a fish would ever notice would be water.”

That said, I enjoyed the novel, and I think it was mostly successful. Galland certainly managed to pull the action away from romantic entanglements and on to issues of social importance. I was surprised by the ending, mostly because the focus shifted from Godiva to Edgiva, and considering the title and the legendary events portrayed, I hadn’t expected it. But I actually liked it. This novel is a great choice for historical fictionistas, but I’d also see it as a choice for those who enjoy New Age fantasy, and are looking to stretch a little beyond the genre.

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

*Bechdel, A. (n.d.). The Rule. Retrieved July 11, 2013 from Go ahead, try to find a blockbuster movie that passes the test this summer. It ain’t easy!