Where's the book?

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Almost, but not quite.

I wanted to read a book a week. I almost made it. I think The Goldfinch and The Interestings probably slowed me down, being so doorstoppy and all, but they were well worth it. Reading is like life in general, it goes so much faster when you're enjoying it. So even if I spent well more than a week on one of those timber-books, it felt like far less than something brief and painful to read (not mentioning any names).

So to finish out the year with numbers 49 and 50:

#49 Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear. Molecular cuisine, nose-to-tail restaurants, fried grasshoppers, extreme dining, raw--it's all here in this collection. Interesting reading, although not for the faint of stomach.

#50 Tenth of December by George Saunders. I heard him read at the National Books Awards evening and although I'd been avoiding this book (it sounded too cooler-than-cool for me), I decided to get it. It definitely is, as the Times called it, "blazingly original," but maybe I just prefer something a little more ordinary. Some of the stories were gripping and painful, but some just left me cold. Sorry, George.

And goodnight and happy new year to all. Here's to wonderful reading in 2014.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Beat the clock. Or the calendar.

Well, I'm probably not going to reach my goal of a book a week this year, 52 books total. Unless I read like a madwoman for the next 9 days, which may not be possible considering there's one family birthday (figlio minore, not so minore any more-aye?) (sorry), the arrival of figlio maggiore, some cousins visiting from out of town, a massive Feast of the Seven Fishes (more like nine in my menu) to prepare for Christmas Eve, then more feasting of the traditional ham-and-all-the-trimmings variety on Christmas Day. Not to mention various other festivities and presents to wrap and places to go and things to do.

But I can't say my output has been too shabby. And here come the last four (yes, four!) books I've mostly enjoyed (one of which really slowed down the total, but was so worth it). I'm still hoping there will be a couple more before the midnight bell strikes on 2013.

#45. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro. I've read her stories over the years in The New Yorker, but never picked up a collection. My book group chose this one for December in honor of her receiving the Nobel Prize in literature this year. I had the same response to them that I always have to her stories: they are compelling, a little scary, somewhat creepy. Reading them feels like picking up a rock and seeing something slimy and awful slither out. Even when bad things don't happen there is still a lingering feeling of dread. I can't say I enjoy the experience of reading her, but I sure do admire her ability to conjure up a full, rounded character in just a few short sentences -- better than most writers manage in pages and chapters (sometimes entire books). If you don't believe me, just read the first few pages of the title story. She introduces three boys and with just a few brief strokes you know them, you know their families, their fears, their hopes, and their lives -- and then they leave the story, never to reappear. It's almost like she's showing off. But I give her more credit than that -- she's building a town and a time -- and then finding her way to the true heart of her story, set like a gem in this world that you now know and believe. It's quite something.

#46. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I'm a big Tartt fan and was very excited that a new novel -- and a big juicy one -- was to be published this year. I read the New York Times review and got even more excited. Nearly 800 pages later (this was the book that slowed me down) I completely agreed with what Michiko Kakutani wrote:

"Ms. Tartt has made Fabritius's bird the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading."

So true. The book was a captivating joy to read with brilliantly drawn characters, excitement, sorrow, joy, pain, love -- it had it all. I wanted to race through it and I wanted to savor it slowly because I loved every single one of the oh-so-many pages.

#47. Mastering the Art of French Eating by Amy Mah. Ms. Mah's husband, a diplomat, managed to achieve the dream and get posted to Paris. But then he is sent to Iraq for a year, where she cannot accompany him, and Mah is left alone, jobless, virtually friendless, in the city of her dreams. One of the ways she copes is by researching and writing this book, a look, chapter by chapter, at various regions of France and each one's iconic dish. Paris = steak frites, Brittany = crepes, Lyon = salad Lyonnaise, etc. Although her writing may not be brilliant, it's an interesting tale, and the recipes for each dish are included. One of these days I may get around to making the highly complicated standout dish of Toulouse, cassoulet.

#48. The Circle by Dave Eggers. It's the 1984 for the google generation. The time is now, and young Mae Holland goes to work for a google-like company called the Circle, which is aiming to consolidate all information, all knowledge, all identity, through its technology. Although it seems wild at first, it quickly comes to feel not very far away -- like we could be on the verge of this right now, and all those paranoid-seeming people who rant about loss of privacy are maybe onto something. Although the book has some flaws -- it gets preachy at times, and Mae is not very well drawn (by the end of the book I still had no idea what she looked like), Eggers is an entertaining and fast-moving writer, and the company and world he creates is both marvelously inventive and frighteningly believable. Almost made me delete my Facebook account.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Make hummus, not wars

We eat a lot of hummus. A lot. Both at home and out. And I've been making hummus at home for years. I've tweaked my recipe this way and that, based on other recipes, hints from other hummus makers, and bits and pieces of information I've managed to wheedle out of the maker of my favorite hummus to date, Rawia Bishara, owner/chef (and soon-to-be cookbook author) of the terrific middle-eastern restaurant Tanoreen, in Bay Ridge.

Rawia at Tanoreen
But after years of making decent hummus, good hummus, and better hummus, I have finally made perfect hummus. Hummus nirvana. Hummus heaven.

And it's all thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi, chef and cookbook author. Quite the man of the moment, I'm sure you've heard of Yotam by now. I've made many of his recipes, but I think I can confidently say that I've made the hummus, from his latest Jerusalem book, most of all. What makes it different? Glad you asked. It's not the ingredients, which are the basic chickpea--lemon--tahini trio of all good hummus. It's not some crazy trick like peeling the chickpeas (thanks for nothing, Smitten Kitchen, That's several hours of my life I'll never get back!). It's the simple technique of agitating the soaked chickpeas with baking soda, which softens the beans (yes, I know it's a legume) and allows them to puree to a smoother, creamier texture. It's the best hummus I've ever made. Maybe the best I've ever had.

I love you Magimix!
(It also helps that I have a brand-new, super-powerful food processor, the Magimix by Robot-Coupe. It's quiet and incredibly strong and easy to clean. I haven't been this excited by a new kitchen appliance since I lost my old Robot-Coupe, which died a couple of years ago after over three decades of loyal service. I bought a high-end Cuisinart to replace it and hated every loud, bumpy whirr of it. Robot-Coupe makes only commercial processors under their own name these days, but they make Magimix for home cooks. Never again, Cuisinart!)

But back to the recipe at hand. I've made this hummus using the overnight soak as well as the quick soak method (boil one minute, sit one hour). Both worked just fine. I haven't tried it with canned chickpeas, because...why? I add a little more garlic because I like it, and sometimes a dash of cumin. Sometimes extra lemon, sometimes more tahini. You really don't even have to measure -- just taste. Whatever you do, the result is the creamiest yummiest smoothest hummus you've ever made -- maybe ever had.

   1 1/3 cup dried chickpeas
   1 teaspoon baking soda
   6 1/2 cups water
   1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tahini (or more if you like it)
   4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (watch out for those bitter pits!)
   4 cloves garlic (or more, or less)
   6 1/2 tablespoons ice cold water
   Olive oil for serving (optional)

So good

  1. Soak the chickpeas overnight in lots of cold water or use the quick soak method. 
  2. Drain the chickpeas. Put them in a medium saucepan over high heat, add the baking soda, and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Don't add water -- you're just agitating the chickpeas with the baking soda.
  3. Now add the water and bring to a boil. Cook, skimming off any foam or skins that float up, for about 20-40 minutes. You don't have to be terribly diligent about the skimming, just do it once or twice. When the chickpeas are done, they will squash easily when pressed. 
  4. Drain the chickpeas and put in your (hopefully Magimix) food processor. Process to a stiff paste. With the machine still running, add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Then slowly drizzle in the ice water and process for about 5 minutes, until smooth and creamy. 
  5. Transfer to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and let rest for at least 30 minutes. Refrigerate until serving, which is best at room temp. Top with a drizzle of good olive oil and whatever else you like -- a spoonful of chopped parsley, a handful of chickpeas, a sprinkle of za'atar...whatever. The recipe says the hummus will keep in the fridge for three days. I think it would last longer, but good luck keeping it around!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Crawling for dumplings

Remember the great donut crawl? AKA the disappointing donut crawl? I'm happy to report that crawl #2, the great dumpling crawl, was a far more successful jaunt.

The list of candidates was, to say the least, vast. Google "best dumplings in NYC" and you'll see what I mean. The images alone are enough to get you on the next N train to Canal Street (at least that's how I get there). After extensive research, figlio minore and I narrowed the field down to four candidates. For a little variety (and to honor my ethnic heritage) we decided to start with a bit of a left-field choice:

Veselka, on Second Avenue and Ninth Street
Veselka's varenyky before
Begun as a candy shop and newsstand in 1954, Veselka (which means "rainbow") is one of the few remnants of what once was a thriving Ukrainian community in the East Village. Like Katz's and Joe's Shanghai and the White Horse and many other old New York favorites that have managed to survive, Veselka has made its way into the guide books, and instead of hearing Ukrainian spoken at the tables, you can hear French and Swedish and all the other languages of the folks who flock to New York. Despite the touristy crowd, the place is still authentic -- still run by the same family, still serving bigos (Ukrainian hunter's stew), stuffed cabbage, blintzes, borscht, and amazing varenyky -- Ukrainian dumplings, with your choice of filling: potato, cheese, meat, spinach and cheese, sauerkraut and mushroom, sweet potato, or arugula and goat cheese (okay, not all the fillings are so traditional). We chose potato, of course, and they were good. Really good. Two forks up good. With a little sour cream and applesauce, it was definitely my favorite dumpling of the day. But that might be my ancestors calling -- after all, my maternal grandparents were born in Kiev. Varenyky are in my blood. And also, as often as possible, my tummy.
Veselka's varenyky after

Two forks up!
Vanessa's on Eldridge Street
Some ambulation was required to work through the varenyky before ingesting further food, so we walked to our next stop: Vanessa's Dumpling House on Eldridge Street. Often cited as the best dumplings in NYC, we were excited to try them out. We picked chive and pork boiled dumplings, eight for two dollars, a price we thought was pretty hard to beat (just wait). Despite the amazing reputation, we were a little disappointed. The dumplings were very watery, maybe the fault of the boiling, but there wasn't much flavor. Although for that price, they were pretty darn good. In the end, however, we decided to only go with one fork up.

Vanessa's dumplings before
Although we didn't love them, we still somehow managed to clean our plate

But only one fork up for Vanessa

Prosperity just down the block
Just down the street from Vanessa, Prosperity is easy to overlook. It's just a storefront with a tiny two-oerson counter and an equally tiny menu. Soup, dumplings, pancakes...actually when you compare the size of the menu with the size of the place it's pretty impressive that they can turn out so many dishes with so little space. Bonus points for menu-variety-to-square-footage ratio. Additional bonus points for price -- one dollar (!) for an order of pork and chive dumplings. Yes, one dollar. And they were good. Delicious. Definitely two forks up.

No plate, no need...

The after shot

Two forks up for sure

Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street
We wanted to include a sampling of xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings. They're a family favorite, and we regularly visit Joe's Shanghai in both Flushing and Manhattan and even his Ginger incarnation and have never been disappointed. But we were curious -- was there a rival to Joe's awesomely delicious buns? Research revealed a strong contender: Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street. We headed over for our last stop and ordered the pork variety. We were pretty full by this time, but we persevered in the cause of a thorough mission. And I'm happy to report that the soup dumplings were excellent -- no better than Joe's but maybe (hard to say without a side-by-side comparison) just as good. My only complaint was the lighting -- a strange bright pink force field that turns everything alien, including the food. So Shanghai gets two chopsticks up for dumplings, no chopsticks up for ambience.

Weird pink lighting that turns the food radiant, but not in a good way

Irradiated soup dumplings
Two (or is it four?) chopsticks up!  

After ingesting all those dumplings (in the name of science!) we were just about crawling, or maybe rolling, home. But the mission continues, and there is no shortage of "best dumplings" to visit. What are yours?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Back to Jane. I should have stayed there.

I came across #43, A Jane Austen Education in the five dollar rack at my local bookstore. A fun hybrid of memoir and literary analysis, it's definitely only for Austen lovers. And memoir lovers. And since I count myself in both camps, it's perfect for moi. Deresiewicz is a former associate professor of English at Yale, a book critic, and the author of Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, so he knows his Austen. The book is exactly what the subtitle says: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Each chapter is one novel and one lesson learned: Emma: Everyday Matters, Pride and Prejudice: Growing Up, Northanger Abbey: Learning to Learn, etc. It's charming and interesting, and filled with all sorts of new ways to look at Austen's novels.

Deresiewicz starts his story detesting Austen. He even quotes Mark Twain, a famous Jane-hater, who wrote, "It seems a great pity to me that they allowed her to die a natural death. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone." Makes you wonder why he read P&P more than one time!

He ends, of course, by loving her, and more than just loving her, he learns from Austen's novels how to be an adult, how to learn, and how to love. A thoroughly enjoyable read for the author's story and what he has to say about Austen's stories, it gave me a whole new perspective on those wonderful books. Maybe time to read another? But in the meantime...

...I read this piece of drek (#44). The first in yet another supernatural trilogy (what hath Rowling wrought?!?), this one features not just vampires, and not just vampires and witches, but vampires and witches and daemons (what's up with that annoying spelling?). It's not only overdone, and overlong (and I read all of it, don't ask me why), but it's -- worst of all -- boring. Since I didn't care, I didn't pay much attention, and it's ridiculously complicated, and I got confused, and I didn't care enough to go back and figure it all out, so I just kept plunging along, endlessly trapped in the dark. I have to learn how to put a book down in the middle and not pick it up again.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jhumpa for Jhoy: A New Novel from Lahiri

For number 42 I read a book by one of my favorite authors: Jhumpa Lahiri. I've loved her writing ever since I read the very first story in Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection of short stories. The last story in that superb book, "The Third and Final Continent," is one of my favorite stories of all time. I think what thrills me so about Lahiri's writing is the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of it -- the clarity of her sentences and the incredible human understanding. I also love the tone of so much of her work, the melancholy and loneliness. I find reading her that I often feel sad without knowing exactly why. So much of her work is about disconnection, about the inability to communicate, to feel part of a place and a time. It's a mood that draws me. I love the darkness of it, the beauty and sadness.

The Lowland, her recently-released second novel, is a bigger stretch, a bit of a saga. It covers the lifetimes of two brothers, born 15 months apart in Calcutta, now Kolkata. They are very different as young boys, and their differences grow as they age. The older is responsible, dutiful, cautious. The younger is adventurous, daring, wild. The younger brother falls in with a group of Maoist rebels, an involvement that leads to his death. He leaves behind a pregnant wife. The older brother marries the new widow and brings her to America, where he has been living and getting a PhD. He raises the child as his own, but the marriage, to say the least, is troubled.

Some motivations -- like his impulse to marry the young widow -- are puzzling. He seems powerfully drawn to her, but is it for her own sake, or is it his need to protect the child? Is it out of love for his brother? Or envy? The young widow who becomes his new wife is an unlikable character (not that there's anything wrong with that, some of my favorite characters are the ones I've liked least) but she's also somewhat unknowable. So many of the characters in the book are shielded, even from themselves. Their inability to connect makes the book very sad, and also very moving.

Although I can't say I liked The Lowland as much as I liked Lahiri's short stories, or The Namesake, that's a minute criticism, since I loved those beyond measure. My only, and ongoing, criticism is that I wish she wrote faster.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shaking a leg.

Tick, tick, tick...

I’m so far behind. Actually, I’m only a little behind in my reading. It’s the 43rd week of the year (how did that happen?) and I’ve just finished my 42nd book. If I hurry (which I won’t), I can still redeem my book-a-week pledge. But rushing through books—even somewhat less than “great” books—is wrong. Books are meant to be savored, not plowed through like a commuter racing for a train. So I will have to find more time to read, which is hard now that autumn is here and New York is in its glory. Let other cities and towns keep their colorful foliage and harvest festivals. I’ll take a new theater season, new books on shelves, new music and decent movies and the crisp bracing weather that makes you want to go out (and then in) and enjoy it all. This week alone I heard an amazing poet read, saw two terrific movies, went to a wonderful museum exhibit, and walked through Central Park, gloriously arrayed. I adore this city in this season.

So, racing along, four recent books:

#39. The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty. My second Australian book of the year (see here for the first) and a definite page-turner. In a long-abandoned shoebox in the attic, a woman discovers a letter from her husband. On the envelope it reads, “To be opened in the event of my death.” What could it possibly contain? A confession? To an affair? Secret homosexuality? A horrific crime? The letter doesn’t get opened immediately but the secret is eventually revealed, and the wife’s story, as well as the stories of two other women with troubles of their own, are interesting and complex. It’s not profound literature, but despite remarkable levels of pain and problems, it never feels overly contrived. And I learned two new Australian words to add to my list: spruik (pronounced “sprook,” it means to delivery a salesman-like spiel, like a hawker at a carnival) and spunk (which means a handsome fellow, get your mind out of the gutter, please).

#40. The Submission, by Amy Waldman. Such an interesting premise—the city of New York holds anonymous submissions for a 9/11 memorial. The winner turns out to be a Muslim-American architect. Difficulties ensue. It raises interesting issues about the purpose of a memorial in general and a 9/11 memorial in particular, dealing with grief, sensitivity to survivors versus the needs of the city and nation. But despite my intellectual interest, the book often felt cold and contrived, as if Waldman charted it all out in terms of the different “types” she would need and the issues she wanted to raise and then blocked a story around it. It didn’t surprise me that her background is in journalism.

#41. Cartwheel, by Jennifer duBois. Based fairly extensively on the Amanda Knox story, this book examines the psyches, rather than the behaviors, of the different people involved: the girl herself, her parents, her boyfriend, and the prosecuting attorney. Although set in Argentina rather than Italy, the story hews to the facts we’re all familiar with: American girl charged with killing roommate during semester abroad. Just like the real-life story, our beliefs and opinions shift repeatedly, depending on whose version of events we’re hearing. It’s interesting to follow those changes in perception, but just like the real story itself (spoiler alert ahead), we never find out the truth. Did the seemingly naïve American girl actually murder her roommate? I can accept the fact that in real life I may never know the answer. But I expect something more of my fiction. I want the truth. However you define it. 

Central Park in autumn. How could you not love it?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pizza is the most important meal of the day

Say good morning to pizza. I don’t mean cold, leftover pizza from the prior night’s delivery. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. No judgments here.

I mean authentic breakfast pizza. A truly delicious use of that supermarket pizza dough you keep stashed in the freezer. What’s that you say? You don’t keep supermarket pizza dough stashed in the freezer? Why the heck not? It doesn’t take up much room, it’s easy to use, and it’s the beginning of so many yummy things, like calzones, breadsticks, garlic knots, flatbread, pizza (duh, or should I say, doh) (sorry), and…

Breakfast Pizza!
Of course, a teeny bit of advance planning is required (other than obtaining the ingredients). You do have to defrost the dough, which means moving it from the freezer to the fridge the night before. Some frozen dough also needs to rest on the counter for an hour or two before using, which is more advance planning than I can usually manage, so I either (a) try to buy the kind that doesn’t require this extremely arduous step or (b) don’t bother doing it.

You could also serve Breakfast Pizza for lunch or dinner, in which case you'd have to change the name.

I’m not going to offer an actual recipe, because I am too lazy to measure all the ingredients I used there are so many different ways you can do this, and I wouldn’t want to limit your creativity. If you must have an actual recipe, you can start with this one. But please add some creativity of your own. Don’t be afraid, it’s really hard to ruin Breakfast Pizza.

Here’s a version I recently made:
Start with the dough, stretching and pulling it gently into the shape you plan to use, which could be the traditional round, or, if you don’t own a pizza pan, rectangular, in which case you would use a cookie sheet. Very lightly oil the pan or sprinkle it with flour or corn meal so the dough won’t stick. 

Then make a pretty layer of thinly sliced tomatoes, sprinkle with chopped garlic, top with crumbled crisply cooked bacon, grated or crumbled cheese (my favorite is chevre, but you can use whatever is on hand; gruyere and cheddar and mozzarella are all good). Bake in a very hot (450 degrees is good) oven for about 10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and it’s starting to bubble. 

Now here's the breakfast-y part. Take it out and gently break 4 (or more, if you’d like) eggs on top and slide it back into the oven. Bake another few minutes until the egg whites are firm but the yolks still runny. Top with chopped basil or chives. Let it cool for a bit to firm up, then cut into wedges (I use a kitchen shears) and serve. Such a good morning!

Breakfast pizza is very welcoming to creative variations. Some possibilities: chopped spinach, arugula, asparagus (blanched first), caramelized onions, cooked sausage, mushrooms, scallions, whatever you can think of.

Or you could just go here.

Good morning!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jane, Jane. And Curtis.

My figlio maggiore (a/k/a older son) used to live next door to a grad student in English who had a bumper sticker on her car that I really liked. “I’d rather be reading Jane Austen,” it said. Interestingly, the owner of the car was a scary looking lesbian with a lot of piercings and a shaved head. Which proves, if you ask me, that Jane has something for everyone.

I’ve read all of Jane’s books many times over and if I had to pick a favorite it would be Sense and Sensibility. Or maybe Pride and Prejudice. Or maybe Persuasion. It’s like a Sophie’s Choice (another good book): I love all of them so much that I hate to choose just one.

But I can say with confidence that my least favorite is Northanger Abbey, which means I just love it with half my heart, not all of it. I re-read it again a couple of weeks ago (#36) and it’s an awful lot of fun, but it’s Jane Austen light. Or maybe even “lite.” It’s as if Jane wrote a young adult novel: The main character, Catherine Morland, is a somewhat silly 17-year-old and even though the other characters in Jane’s books are young (Elinor Dashwood—the possessor of such great “sense”—is all of 19 and her sister Marianne is 16! wise Elizabeth Bennet is just 20!) Catherine feels young: childlike, unperceptive, vastly naïve. The story is slim—Catherine meets a cute guy, a false friend, a good friend, a not-so-cute guy. It feels a little like high school. In fact, false friend Isabella Thorpe could be a prototype mean girl. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and of course has the requisite Jane Austen happy ending. If I had a teenage girl to introduce to Jane, this would definitely be the book I’d start with.

The R-rated Mansfield?
But after Northanger, I needed some Jane with a little more meat. Since I try to rotate them in order, that meant Mansfield Park (#37), which is possibly my next to least favorite Austen novel, which means that I only love it with three quarters of my heart. The story certainly has more meat to it, and some wonderful characters, but for me the little worm at the core of the apple are the two main characters: Fanny Price and Edward Bertram. Fanny is so timid, so reticent, that she almost vanishes from the page. She’s too good, too simple, too sweet. And Edward comes across as a bit of a judgmental prig. But everything else is pure cream. Fanny’s aunt, Mrs. Bertram, is a marvelous portrait of a woman so indolent she’s practically catatonic. And her other aunt, Mrs. Norris (the cat in Harry Potter was named for her), is one of Jane’s wonderful nasty comic women, cruel to poor (literally and figuratively) Fanny, grasping, self-congratulatory, and hilariously miserly. The story bounces along as only Jane can bounce it, with appropriate punishments for the wicked and rewards for the good, a wedding and a happily ever after.

#38 required a departure from Regency England, and a jump across the pond to a ritzy New England boarding school and the novel Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Although it’s about a young woman and her coming of age, it’s worlds and lifetimes away from a Jane Austen novel, not only in its setting, but in its style. Like Jane, Sittenfeld writes wonderful dialogue, but unlike Austen, her plotting is almost non-existent. There’s not so much a story as a diary of four years in the life of our main character, a scholarship student from faraway (yet not at all exotic) Indiana. Lee Fiora, the narrator, struggles academically and socially, and is so withdrawn as to almost fade from the page. Her insights about class and money and teenage interrelations are occasionally fascinating, but for much of the book I just wanted her to get out of her dorm room and do something…anything! Go to a movie, get high, make friends, join a team, pick a hobby! She is intimidated by everything, and she knows it, and she spends most of the book analyzing it. She’s insightful about her own state of passivity, but it never changes, and it eventually gets old. When things finally start happening in senior year, there’s a bit of a plot, but not much. A novel without a plot isn’t much of a read. Sittenfeld should have spent some time studying Austen, if you ask me.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why I'm not a mathematician

Isaac Newton. He could count.
Mainly because I can't count.

My last entry was called book #33.

And the entry before that was called, "29, 30, 31, 32..." But it only covered three books. So it should have been "29, 30, 31..." And the next book should have been counted as #32. 

Which makes this next one book #33. And which makes me really bad at math. Or at least at counting.

And now here are, if I've counted correctly, numbers 33, 34, and 35. I think.

#33. I picked Summer Reading out of the pile at the used book store
because I was looking for something by Meg Wolitzer, having loved The Interestings. My search was unsuccessful -- nothing by Meg -- but they did have a book by her mother, Hilma Wolitzer. I was curious to see if their writing styles were similar, and they are. But Summer Reader is Wolitzer light, or lite. It's a moderately entertaining book, a quick read, revolving around a summer reading group of wealthy women in the Hamptons. The books they read are all favorites of mine and it was pleasant to see how references to Vilette or Madame Bovacy were woven into the story. But it made me want to read one of those richer, deeper books again, instead of this thinner imitation. 

#34 was the September choice for my book group (thank you Maggie), and it was an unusual one, by an author I'd never heard of and will now have to look up to make sure I get the spelling right. Skylark by Hungarian author Dezso Kosztolanyi was written in the 1920s and set around 1900 in a small town in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The story covers one week -- one strange and glorious week in the lives of what the author refers to as an "elderly" couple (they are in their late 50s). Their much-loved thirty-something year old spinster daughter, Skylark, has left for a week to visit relatives. They weep at her departure and then, slowly, they begin to bloom in the absence of their humorless, oppressive, loving, stultifying warden. They go out to restaurants. They go to the theater. They drink and play cards and see friends and laugh. All the things they do not do when their beloved Skylark is home. The story is quite subtle, funny at times, and deeply moving. You do not recognize the point at which you realize that Skylark is almost as much hated and feared as she is loved. It's a wonderful, quiet, sympathetic, magical book. 

#35 is a newbie: I picked up The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani because (a) like The Interestings, it's another novel about camp, and I like camp and (b) I bought the hype. The setting in this story is a combination riding camp and school for girls in 1930, and the main character is Thea Atwell, a teenage girl who has been sent away from her idyllic Florida home for some awful deed. What the deed is and why Thea has been cast out of Eden becomes slowly clearer as the story moves along, and although at first I was irritated by DiSclafani's careful doling out of hints, I was eventually drawn into the story, and the sexual charge that underlies the book. It's a bildungsroman for girls, a thankfully subtle story of a complex young woman learning about life and herself. In lesser hands it would have been a silly teen novel about girls and boys and sex and bad deeds. But DiSclafani is better than that, and although her deliberate style got on my nerves, and almost all the characters other than Thea are tissue paper thin, Thea is thankfully complex, and bold, and intelligent, and unapologetic. I can't say I loved the book, but I liked it. And I'm looking forward to the movie. Jennifer Lawrence, I assume? 

J.La as Thea? I'm down. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The best was yet to come

I actually finished #33 before the last reading round-up post but I decided to wait, because this book deserves a post all its own.

Frank McCourt, no stranger to lyrical Irish tale-telling himself, called Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin a "groundbreaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel," which says it all. It is a symphony -- multiple threads of melody that weave in and out, sometimes almost without the reader (or listener) being aware of the all the lines that come together so perfectly, so beautifully. The past weaves into the present, and then again into the future. And all of it is braided so brilliantly together.

It's the story of New York in August of 1974 -- of one week, which was the week that Philippe Petit crossed the high wire on the World Trade Center, the week that Nixon resigned, and the week that I moved to Manhattan. One thread -- a minor one -- tells us of the high wire artist and the city's response to it. But all the others are of people we would never read about in the paper: an Irish monk living in the Bronx projects, a mother-daughter pair of prostitutes, two women who have lost their sons in Vietnam, a judge in the overloaded Manhattan courts, an artist who is thrown from one life to another when her car taps another on the FDR Drive. And more, many more. Each story ties to the others and each brings another life to full, rich, real existence. As much as you are sad to leave one story behind, you are immediately, fully immersed in another.

I was stunned by the beauty of this novel. I was equally stunned by how it thrust me back into the New York I moved to in August of 1974, the grit, the rough texture, the feral atmosphere. But this book does not dwell on the darkness or the misery. It's the kind of book that left me feeling joyous, that made me want to start it over again right away, that made me want to sit, and think, and breathe deep, and talk about it, and give copies to everyone I know.

In addition to being in love with the book, I am also in love with its author. The paperback of the book contains an interview with McCann. In it he says that this book is his emotional response to 9/11. He says, "It's my stab at personal healing. I'm not here to preach. I just lay out a landscape so that people can walk into it, or walk out, hopefully with their souls shifted sideways an instant."

Isn't that a wonderful description of what happens when we read something marvelous: our souls shift sideways an instant.

But what finally made me love the book is its heart. It is a story -- a symphony of stories -- filled with a powerful compassion, a compassion based on understanding and faith, not the God kind, but the faith in people that seems so outdated today. I wasn't surprised to hear McCann say, in that interview at the back:

"It's strange, but as I grow older, I find myself developing more optimism. I keep inching toward the point where I believe that i's more difficult to have hope than it is to embrace cynicism. In the deep dark end, there's no point unless we have at least a modicum of hope. We trawl our way through the darkness hoping to find a pinpoint of light. But isn't it remarkable that the cynics of this world--the politicians, the corporations, the squinty-eyed critics -- seem to think that they have a claim on intelligence? They seem to think that it's cooler, more intellectually engaging, to be miserable, that there's some sort of moral heft in cynicism."

And one last beautiful, big-hearted word from the author:

"I think that a good novel can be a doorstop to despair."

I will now read everything else Colum McCann has ever written and then wait, impatiently, for more.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

29, 30, 31, 32...

Disappointment reigns...I've fallen short of my book-a-week resolution, which was a shaky resolution at best. I usually read about 48 or so books a year, at least for the last few years when I've kept track. Which means an average of 4 books a month, some months more, some less. But the tidy numbers-keeper within me loved the idea of a book a week, so I made that my goal, with the (silent) understanding that I didn't need to make myself nuts in order to fulfill it. After all, the object isn't racing through book after book, but reading for the pleasure, the elucidation, the enlightenment. It's about the journey, not the finish line. But what a finish line -- a book a week! I once read an article about a woman who read a book a day for an entire year, which thrilled me enormously. What an idea! A book a day. And somehow she also managed to blog about them here. I'm can't remotely imagine how she did that (and still raise 3 kids and presumably sleep), but that was a goal beyond my imagining. A book a week, now...that I could see. But summer and its attendant distractions (beaching! boating! hosting) has thrown me off the righteous path and here I am in week 34 with only 32 books read. Perhaps I will have to play catch-up with a couple of quickies. Except I also vowed to read this one over the summer and it won't fit easily into my book-a-week plan. Maybe I'll save it for next summer. We'll see...

In the meantime, here's a quick look at where I've been. Some wonderful reading time has passed.

#29 A rose by any other name would still write as sweet
 I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter books. Read every word, saw every movie, loved every minute. I thought JK Rowling was a bit of a modern Dickens -- great characters, rollicking story lines, bad guys and good guys and lots of drama. So when I read about the mystery she wrote under a false name (Robert Galbraith) I immediately bought a copy of The Cuckoo's Calling on iBooks. It didn't disappoint. The first in what she plans as a series of mysteries starring a one-legged PI named Cormoran Strike (her talent for names has not deserted her), Cuckoo is a fun, confident read. Although there seemed to be some small holes -- pinholes, really -- in the plot (I felt that way about Harry Potter, too), the story bounced along, and Cormoran and his smart, warm-hearted assistant Robin (he's Batman, get it?) are very appealing characters. I would definitely follow their adventures in future Strike mysteries.

#30 Movies and books have so little in common
Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet
I've seen the movie of Mrs. Miniver ages ago, starring the wonderfully resolute Greer Garson (still my favorite Elizabeth Bennet, despite the fact that she looks closer to the age Elizabeth's mother should be) and loved it. So when I came across the book in a used bookstore, I grabbed it, only to find out that the movie and the book have about as much in common as Greer Garson and Keira Knightly.
Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Bennet

The book is a collection of short essays by Jan Struther, an English writer who is also famous for writing hymns. The essays, each a brief look at the everyday life of a British housewife, were based on Struther's own life and appeared in the London Times from 1937 until 1939. They're lovely, beautifully written, touching peeks into topics as world-shaking as hosting a dinner party and shopping for Christmas presents. Only briefly, towards the end, do the essays really touch on the world at large, once in a very moving piece about the family going to pick up their assigned gas masks, including the miniature models for her two young children. "It was for this, thought Mrs. Miniver as they walked towards the car, that one had boiled the milk for their bottles, and washed their hands before lunch, and not let them eat with a spoon which had been dropped on the floor." She writes also about going to first-aid class and the strange sense of expectation combined with apprehension that has descended on her country. Another woman confides that she likes the class because it makes her feel like she is back at school again. "I know," Mrs. Miniver thinks, "that's the whole point. That is the one great compensation for the fantastic way in which the events of our time are forcing us to live. The structure of our life--based as it is on the every-present contingency of way--is lamentably wrong: but its texture, oddly enough, is pleasant. There is a freshness about, a kind of rejuvenation: and this is largely because almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental or physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old."

The book was a huge success, in both Britain and the US, where Struther went on an enormously successful lecture tour. The book was such a hit that Franklin Roosevelt credited it for hastening America's involvement in the war. Winston Churchill supposedly said that Mrs. Miniver did more for the Allid cause than a flotilla of battleships.

#31 Did I mention that movies and books have so little in common?
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's creature
As different as Mrs. Miniver book and movie are, the book and movie of that old favorite Frankenstein are so different they are barely relatable. Yes, they both revolve around the story of a man who plays God by creating a human, and his name is Frankenstein (the man, not the creature, who has no name). But that's about it. In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s book, the creation portion takes about a paragraph. The rest of the many pages are about the pursuit of the creature to destroy his creator and then the creator to destroy his creature. The story is framed like Heart of Darkness -- it's told by an Arctic explorer who has taken the Doctor on board his ship in letters to his sister. The book covers enormous territory as the various pursuits occur. And, most importantly, the creature’s story is half the book. He speaks! He reads! He thinks! He is much, much more than a grunting evil being depicted in the movie. It’s a deeper, richer story, with elements of religion and classical and biblical mythology and one I’m thrilled I’ve finally gotten around to reading.

My favorite Frankenstein creature: Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Berry berry delicious

Summer is a delicious season, and I mean that in the most literal way. The corn! The tomatoes! The fruit! While I barely open my mouth for fruit the rest of the year (apples and oranges and pears, oh meh!), in summer I can't get enough of the sweet berries and melons and peaches. And out here in farm country where I am so fortunate to spend the warm weather months, fruit is bountiful and near-perfect. And oh-so-seasonal. This year, thanks to a family wedding and other requirements that kept us in town well into June, we just about missed the strawberry season, which peaks around Father's Day and is done by 4th of July. But we made it in time for all the other wonderful fruits.

Of course, even the most seasonally perfect fruit is better with a little something added, like a crust, or whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream, or some shortbread. At least, IMHO. My significant other feels quite differently. Once, when asked by a friend to name his favorite dessert, he squinted slightly, gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling, and said, longingly, "A perfect peach."

To me, even the Platonic ideal of peach would not be enough to qualify as dessert. So the question looms: What is the best way to deal with the fruitful bounty of summer? Pie? Not really. Pie is just fruit that's been herded into a pasture and fenced in with crust, and even the best pie crust is nothing to write home about. Tarts are way too fussy for beach season. Crisp and brown betty and cake (here's a wonderful recipe for strawberry cake from my favorite food blogger, Smitten Kitchen--and it works equally well with blueberries or other fruits) are all great, but surely the all-time winner for summer dessert is a perfect cobbler.

A perfect cobbler is a the greatest thing in the world. Well, perhaps except for a nice MLT...

Forgive my digressions, but there's always room for Miracle Max. Now back to cobblers. A cobbler is the ne-plus-ultra summer dessert, simple to make, easy to eat, fresh, sweet, happy. The challenge, for me, was combing up with the right balance of fruit and cake. Since I am not a fruit worshipper, I wanted more cake than fruit, but a light cake. Not a biscuit, although that's good, but also not a sugary cake, although that has its place as well. A somewhat sweet, cake-y cobbler with barely sweetened, summery fresh fruit.

I found the perfect recipe years ago in the New York Times, courtesy of Mark Bittman, a culinary hero. You can whip up the cake in the food processor in a minute or two, or by hand if you prefer. I have doubled the amount of cake but you can halve it if your fruit:cake ratio preference is different from mine. In that case, remember not to halve the amount of sugar in the fruit, only the cake portion. You can also sweeten the fruit to taste; I prefer less sweet fruit if it's fresh and naturally sweet. You could also add a bit of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, etc. Or grated lemon zest. And, best of all, this recipe works equally well with any type of berry (mix them up or add chopped rhubarb, which might require slightly more sugar), peaches, nectarines, or even apples or pears, but who wants to think about apples and pears when peaches and blueberries are at hand? It's summer, the sweetest time of year.

4-6 cups berries, washed and well dried, or other fruit
1 1/2 cups sugar, or to taste, divided
16 tablespoons (two sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits (more for greasing the pan)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch or two of salt
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Toss the fruit with 1/2 cup of sugar (or to taste) and spread it in a lightly buttered baking pan. 
  2. In a food processor, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and 1 cup sugar and pulse. Add butter and process for 10 seconds, until well blended. Beat the egg and vanilla together and add.
  3. Drop the mixture onto the fruit by tablespoons. Don't spread it out, just plop it there. Bake until starting to brown, 35-45 minutes. 
  4. Best served warm with whipped cream or good vanilla ice cream. If you have leftovers (you probably won't) it's great with your morning yogurt. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Catching up

My figlio maggiore has been visiting for a couple of weeks, along with his new and adorable and lovable and sweet and affectionate...beagle. Pepper, as he has named the rescued pup, is about two years old, and is the prettiest puppy I've ever seen. Her colorations range from ivory white to chocolate brown to a sweet dark brown patch right on the top of her head. I'm torn between wanting to hug her and wear her. I can see how Cruella De Vil got her start. It always begins with love.

In between spending time with the FigMag and the puppy, and visits to the beach, and trying to stay cool (it's hot here, really hot), and cooking and baking (world's best cobbler recipe, coming soon), there has been plenty of reading time. And since I've been plowing through books like a hot knife through good brie, I'm going to use this space to play a little bit of catch up.

#25 The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
The story of a group of young people who meet at an arts camp in the early 1970s. Wolitzer follows them from there through the next three or so decades of their lives. The central character is a girl from Long Island named Julie, who quickly transforms, thanks to the sparkling group of young people she falls in with at camp, into the far more creative "Jules."

I was primed to love this book. After all, I grew up in the New York City suburbs at roughly the same time as these kids (I would be maybe two years older than them). I went to arts camp. I changed my name at 14 from the pedestrian Jill Ann to the far more creative "Jilann." I longed to live in Manhattan, to be creative, to be witty, to be...interesting.

Luckily (for me), I did love the book. Despite covering so many lives for so many years, it never feels thin or contrived. Wolitzer knows these characters inside and out, and by the end of the book, so do we. Although she skips blithely through many major chunks of life (raising kids seems to happen while you're looking the other way), you never feel like she's losing touch with her story. And the book touches on something I can't remember reading about in other stories -- the envy people can feel for the wealth or happiness or achievements of friends, even friends they love. And how to remain friends despite that envy, and through that envy. It's a powerful topic and, in large or small ways, we've all felt it. The books was a rewarding, rich, thoroughly engrossing read. It took me back to my adolescence like a Proustian madeleine and I could smell the bug juice and popsicle sticks of camp.

#26 The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout
Since I had read and loved Olive Kitteridge I was excited to read another book by Strout, especially since I had seen several good reviews of this one. But I was, sadly, so sadly, very disappointed. One of the things I loved about Olive was her compassionate and loving portrait of so many different and differently flawed characters, including the stiff, cold, proud title character. Strout seemed to have the ability to put herself in so many different skins, and to make them all not only believable, but understandable, even when they behaved badly.

But in this book she seems to have lost her way. The Burgess boys themselves -- two grown brothers named Jim and Bob -- along with their sister Susan -- are all unlikable, particularly the older brother, Jim. A successful lawyer, Jim is arrogant, abrasive, domineering -- almost to the point of abusive. His younger brother Bob seems like a simp for putting up with it, as does his thinly drawn wife. The action revolves around a seemingly racist act committed by Susan's strange son Zach, which drawns Bob and Jim back to the failing Maine town in which they grew up, and in which their father died in a strange accident that has haunted the "boys" ever since.

Bob is meant to be the book's conscience, and heart, but his inability to stand up to either his brother or his nasty, cold (figuratively and literally -- she keeps her house so frigid that Bob has to sleep in his coat) sister Susan, made me lose patience with him. Since Strout does not extend her hand to me as a reader in liking or even fully understanding these characters -- and they weren't entertaining enough to keep me drawn in without some compassion extended toward them -- I found myself bored and irritated throughout. A disappointment, truly.

#27 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Although the book has a gimmick -- it takes place during one day in the life of a returning hero from Iraq. Billy and his Bravo squad's battle at Al-Ansakar Canal has been captured on video, and they are media heroes, traveling the country on display, possibly the subjects of a movie, and, most importantly, about to return to Iraq for another tour. On this day they are at Dallas Cowboys stadium, where Billy will drink, smoke pot, meet a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and fall for her, text, talk, take part in Hollywood negotiations and a Destiny's Child halftime show, and a whole lot more. Except for one extended flashback to Billy's painful visit home, the entire tale unfolds in this one long, crazy day. Billy is a wonderful character -- a 19-year-old boy who has been kicked into the role of a man, and tries, hard, to live up to it. Fountain's language is as wild a ride as his story, it is rich, twisty, evocative. I don't like war stories (even when they don't involve actual war) or male-dominated stories (what could be more male dominated that a book about a war hero?). It was, therefore, not a book I thought I would like, and I didn't like it. I loved it.

#28 Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
And speaking of wild language... Welcome to the Shteyngart universe. Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride. Falling somewhere on my personal Shteyngart spectrum between The Russian Debutante's Handbook (loved it!) and Absurdistan (hated it!), this book is set in the not-too-distant future when America's economy has collapsed, various foreign powers are taking over (China! Norway!), and war with Venezuela is background music to it all. Our Russian-immigrant hero, Lenny Abramov, works for a company that is developing technology to make immortality a reality (but only for HNWIs -- High Net Worth Individuals), and is involved in a whole lot of other shady dealings as well. The story swings from Lenny's diary to the texts (now called "teens") of his new lady love (a much-younger daughter of Korean immigrants named Eunice Park). Shteyngart's imagination seems to know no bounds, and, thankfully, his vision of the dystopian future seems entirely original. And the book is about many things (consumerism! old world-new world! immigrant mentalities!) but mostly about the real biggies: love, loss, and, above all, mortality. But despite the big themes (and I love a book about love and death as much as the next anhedonic Jew) somehow it didn't all come to life -- I just didn't care if Lenny lived forever or if he and Eunice and her adorable freckles made it work or even if New York City fell apart in the "Rupture" that finally brings America to her knees. It was all too much sizzle and not enough steak.