Monday, October 28, 2013

THE BIG CLOCK by Kenneth Fearing

A murder investigation in which the investigator already believes he knows who the murderer is – and yet realizes he himself is being framed for the crime. He has to keep the investigation going long enough to reveal the murderer before the murderer realizes he was recognized. That is the taut, electrifying premise of Ken Fearing’s noir NYRB Classic The Big Clock.

George Stroud, editor of Crimeways magazine, is not a nice person. Despite the fact he has a sweet wife and an adorable kid (both nicknamed “George”), he begins a casual affair with his boss’ girlfriend, Pauline. After dropping her off from a clandestine weekend, he spies his boss following her up the stairs to her apartment. Two days later the cleaning lady finds she’s been murdered. George’s boss, publishing mogul Earl Janoth, tasks George with tracking down the killer – but all clues lead back to Pauline’s lover, who just happens to be George. The rest of the book is a study in tension, as George follows the steps that will inevitably lead to revealing himself as Pauline’s lover, thereby destroying his home life, his job, and quite possibly his life, if Janoth is the real killer.

I looked out the windows myself. There was a lot of territory out there. A nation within a nation. If I picked the right kind of a staff, twisted the investigation where I could, jammed it where I had to, pushed it hard where it was safe, it might be a very, very, very long time before they found George Stroud. p. 90

This short novel, told through multiple narrators who sound like witnesses giving testimony, really packs a punch. It’s fun to watch George, the sleazy philanderer who thought he covered his tracks so well, come to realize how easy his actions were to trace. Part of the giveaway comes in George’s peculiar taste in art, which was fine. But I really didn’t get why Fearing included the perspective of the artist in the novel. I thought it confused a very tight plot.

It’s easy to see why this is a noir classic, however, and a perfect choice for both the R.I.P. VIII Challenge and the Classics Club. That makes four for this season’s R.I.P. Challenge, but I’m still hoping to review one more before the week is out! Thanks so much to Carl V. for hosting! This is the first of the NYRB Classics on my Classics Club List I have gotten to, and I am happy I have so many of these once out-of-print titles on my TBR pile. They add an element of mental detective work to my reading, wondering why they went out of fashion in the first place.

FTC Statement: I did not receive a copy of this book for review. I borrowed it from the library. That brings my Classic Club average cost per book down to $3.07!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cookbook Review: THE FOOD YOU CRAVE by Ellie Krieger

Getting back to school means getting back to routines and getting back to health. So one of the book recommendations I was most enthusiastic about trying this fall was a recommendation from our own Beth Fish: The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life by Ellie Krieger.

As the Weekend Cooking crew may remember, I have a love/hate relationship with Food Network personality cookbooks. But this particular book won a James Beard Award in the category of “Cookbook with a Healthy Focus.” Those two recommendations were enough to put the book on my library list.

Who is Ellie Krieger? Krieger is a registered dietician with a Master’s degree in Nutrition. She hosts the Food Network show Healthy Appetite. Krieger is a prominent member of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, and she was head nutritionist for the White House’s “Healthy Kids Fair.”

Take on Cooking: Traditional favorites reimagined into healthy meals.

The Delicious Parts:The book is beautifully designed, with lots of photos (although not for every recipe). The recipes are easy to understand and prep, without myriad ingredients that some healthy cookbooks employ to make up for a lack of fat, so I found they were fine for weeknights. Her strategy is to change the proportions of non-healthy ingredients in recipes, rather than use unpleasant or unsatisfying substitutes, which I appreciated. The book is jam-packed with nutritional information, which I found very helpful. For example, rather than just give total fat information for recipes, she breaks down both good (mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like the ones found in nuts and veggies) and bad (saturated) fats. She also includes daily numbers to shoot for in many nutrition categories.

My First Bites: I cooked four recipes from the book: Confetti Chili, Aromatic Noodles with Lime-Peanut Sauce, Buffalo Chicken Salad and Chicken Chop Suey. They all came together easily, and my family enjoyed them all. The Confetti Chili was spicy from the chipotle, smoky from the adobo sauce and cumin, and sweet from the corn. Made with canned beans (suggested by Krieger) and tons of veggies, it came together in about an hour. It could easily become our house chili. The only recipe my husband wasn’t too enthusiastic about was the Chop Suey. It was a bit bland, but since the original is kind of a bland, Americanized version of Chinese food, it would probably be a winner with people who are fans. And even at that, I got a great idea for turning dumpling skins into a healthier Asian crunchy topping than those canned fried noodles.

Not Quite To My Taste: When it comes to dinner, Krieger really focuses on meat dishes. Red meat factors heavily in the Main Course section, but we don’t tend to eat steaks and chops very often. Still, for meat lovers, finding healthier ways of cooking them would be a real plus. Oddly, I wasn’t blown away by the salad choices; many were more “go-withs” than meals on their own. Still, those negatives are based on my personal taste and lifestyle. I think Krieger really does a great job with the promise of the book.

Recommendation? Devour, Split, Send it Back to the Kitchen? Devour or split, definitely – but I’d lean toward devour if you’re looking for a solid, healthy lifestyle cookbook with a broad range of recipes. You certainly won’t be disappointed with this one.

One Great Recipe: Ellie Krieger’s Confetti Chili

1 T olive oil
1 small onion, diced (1 cup)
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and diced (1 cup)
1 medium carrot, diced (½ cup)
2 t ground cumin
1 t ground coriander
1 lb. lean or extra lean (90% lean or higher) ground beef
One 28-oz can no-salt added crushed tomatoes, with their juices
2 c water
1 canned chipotle chili in adobo sauce, seeded and minced, plus 2 t of the sauce (I didn’t seed the chipotles, because we love heat)
½ t oregano
One 15.5 oz can black beans, preferably low-sodium, drained and rinsed
One 15.5 oz can kidney beans, preferably low-sodium, drained and rinsed
1 ½ c frozen corn kernels
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1) Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and carrot, cover, and cook, stirring, for occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the cumin coriander and cook, stirring for 1 minute. And the ground beef; raise the heat to high and cook, breaking up the meat with a spoon, until the meat is no longer pink. Stir in the tomatoes, water, chipotle and adobo sauce, and oregano and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, partially covered, stirring from time to time, for 30 minutes.

2) Stir in the beans and continue cooking, partially covered, 20 minutes longer, until the chili is nicely thickened. Stir in the corn and cook until heated through. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review. I borrowed it from the library.

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!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I was completely taken in from the first page of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. And yet I’ve struggled with this review because I just can’t seem to put the book into words. So maybe it will be easier to put it into one word: voluptuous. I have never read a novel that appealed so viscerally to my senses.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. p. 13

That’s pretty heady stuff for a walk in the woods!

A member of the Harlem Renaissance movement, Hurston attempted to capture a microcosm of the post-Civil War experience of African-American women with Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book begins with Janie Crawford, a beautiful teenager, awakening to the sensuousness of the South in springtime. Her grandmother panics at her first kiss, fearing she will go down the path of the mother who had and then abandoned Janie, and so she marries her off to a secure but boring local farmer. Janie’s personality can’t be contained, however, and she walks off the farm one day with Jody, a man she believes will lead her to adventure. He brings Janie to one of the newly-built African-American towns in Central Florida, and quickly becomes the town’s mayor. But Janie finds out that having money and prestige is very different from having happiness.

Still, Janie’s disappointing marriage to Jody eventually leaves her a young, rich widow. And her independence gives her something she’s never had: choices. When she meets Teacake, a guitar-playing gambler, she experiences the “springtime” she remembers from her youth. Because she owns a home she can choose to leave it. Because she has lived conventionally she can choose to flout convention. Janie’s self-actualization becomes an allegory for the Harlem Renaissance itself, ready to break free from the constraints of white society and create something truly unique and beautiful on its own.

I’m sorry it took me so long to get this review up – it would have been a perfect choice for Banned Book Week, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a great Harlem Renaissance title. It is partially written to capture the Southern African-American vernacular of the time, and that slowed down my reading a bit at times, but it didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment: it just made me focus. One thing I found personally captivating was the book’s location. I lived in Gainesville, Florida, for six years, so I had an easy time imagining the wild lushness of rural central Florida and its small, isolated little towns. I would encourage all lovers of literary fiction to read this book. Southern literature enthusiasts and classic romance readers would enjoy it as well. It spans so many boundaries: humorous but heartbreaking, classic but out of the ordinary, ancient but totally fresh.

What a fantastic Classics Club title! I can’t figure out how Their Eyes Were Watching God was a completely new title to me – I saw it on the ALA’s list of Banned and Challenged Classics and couldn’t remember ever having heard about it. But a quick look at the synopsis told me I’d found a title that fit the African-American Experience Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge – and the story looked compelling to boot. So I plonked down the whopping $9.78 cost of the Kindle edition and got to work (for anyone keeping count, that’s $12.29 for my Classics Club reading so far, for an average of about $4.10 per title). I’m quite sure this going to be one of my favorite books of the year, so it was more than worth the cost of the e-book. And both of those challenges are happily on track! Next up – two classics that fit into the RIP Challenge coming soon!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

First Chapter, First Paragraph Tuesday Intro: AN INCURABLE INSANITY by Simi K. Rao

“Ruhi Sharma was a blushing bride, practically a newlywed, locked up in this glittering cage for almost a month, twenty-nine days to be exact; an object of envy of all her friends and family.

Twenty-nine days ago, she had signed her name beside his on the marriage certificate. She had gone through all the miscellaneous ceremonies associated with the typical grand Indian wedding – the engagement, the Menhendi, the Sangeet, the Haldi, and the grand finale (her father had spared no expense) until finally her betrothed had staked his claim by placing the Sindoor on her forehead and typing the Mangalsutra around her neck, and she had quietly and blissfully followed him around the sacred fire carefully listening to and reciting the Saath Pheras in her mind.”

I think this is a fantastic opening. I really love books that give me insights into other cultures, so I will definitely keep reading. Would you?

I am reading An Incurable Insanity as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. I will be writing a complete review of this title soon. In the meantime, you'll find other opinions and reviews of the book here. Thanks, Lisa, for including me on the tour!

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where bloggers can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book they are reading or thinking about reading soon. You'll find this week's links here.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I AM VENUS by Bárbara Mujica

In a “perfect” novel, you wouldn’t notice narration. The perspective provided by the text would be so clear, so seamless, that the reader would have complete comprehension of the characters and plot. Of course, there is no “perfect” novel. Authors are constrained by language and struggle with the perspective of the narrator in their storytelling. In I Am Venus, Bárbara Mujica attempts to break free of those narrative constraints. I cannot say that I thought the experiment was totally successful, but I do appreciate the desire for enhanced perspective without multiple narrators that the author was striving to achieve.

The story starts with a prologue, in which the mysterious model for Diego Velásquez’s “The Toilette of Venus” describes the secret conditions that accompanied creation of the painting. Now in Britain’s National Gallery, “Venus” is the painter’s only extant nude, because the strict conservatism of the Catholic Church in Spain forbade painters from depicting illicit scenes. It caused a sensation when it was eventually found in the collection of a Spanish noble, but Velásquez managed to avoid prosecution because of the mythological subject matter: by adding Cupid holding a mirror, the painter went from pornographer to classicist under the Inquisitorial logic of the time.

The story focuses more on the life of Velásquez and his family than on the painting of Venus, however. This was where the peculiarities of the narration became apparent – and frankly distracting. The narration changed from first person to third person when the narrator was describing things about which she had no direct knowledge. However, it became clear that the first person narrator was also describing herself in the third person, as though she is looking on at her own life in an objective way – subjecting herself to the artist’s gaze, in a way. The choice is interesting, of course, because Velásquez famously used mirrors in both “The Toilette of Venus” and “Las Meninas” to work beyond the limiting borders of a flat canvas, giving it a 3-dimensional quality. And in “Las Meninas,” the artist boldly inserted himself into a portrait of the royal family, turning the painter himself into a subject. Perhaps that's what Mujica was trying to recreate with her fictitious author.

I liked the subject matter of this book very much. I knew next to nothing about Velásquez and the court of Felipe IV before I read it, so I really enjoyed learning about the history of post-Armada Spain. I was especially curious about the life of the painter after having the chance to see his Baroque masterpiece, “Las Meninas,” in the Prado a few years ago. I’d seen a hundred depictions of it, but seeing it in person was absolutely inspiring – it’s both beautiful and playful at the same time. So I was grateful for Mujica’s ability to bring the great master to life.

I was less satisfied by the character development in the book, however. I never got to love any of the main characters. This is especially odd considering who the mysterious model turns out to be in the end, but I don’t want to go into details. Suffice it to say that when I got to the end I felt like the narration choice made even less sense in retrospect. But maybe that’s just me. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, so you can read other opinions of the book by following the links here. I received a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion. Thanks, as always, to Lisa for including me on the tour.