Where's the book?

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.