Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review: The First Rule of Swimming

 

It seems rather fitting that just after reading and reviewing a novel last week centered on two brothers that I would pick up The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic, a gripping story of two sisters. Magdalena and Jadranka are from a small sheltered Croatian island and their lives and those of their whole family have been shaped by a war that tested the bounds of their family’s loyalty. In the Babic family, keeping secrets pushes loved ones away and years later revealing secrets proves just as forceful, propelling Jadranka to run straight into danger, her uncle Marin and her mother Ana to face emotions they’d long since buried, and Magda to begin a journey across the ocean that will ultimately change her circumstances forever.

Brkic has crafted a story that is heavy with emotion and draws out our sympathy for not only the protagonist, Magda, but her entire cast of supporting characters. Each member of the Babic family has a complex persona derived from their past experiences and unique point of view.

This is a great summer read.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review: In the Land of the Living

I just finished reading In the Land of the Living by Austin Ratner. It’s powerful novel, a tale of men – fathers, brothers, and sons wherein women play the supporting background roles. The story opens on three Hungarian brothers, Burt, Isidore, and Dennis, all of whom have a difficult relationship with their father, Ezer. And so a significant portion of the early chapters in the novel focus on the tension between father and sons and Isidore is distinguished as the story’s original protagonist.

Later, the novel follows Isidore through college and medical school and unfolds his romantic relationships and eventual marriage. His love for his sons is in the forefront in these chapters, while his angst for his father still bubbles to and breaks through the surface occasionally. Chapter nine showcases the notes Isidore keeps on his growing son’s toddler years and it’s beautiful to read.

Eventually the focus of the novel turns to Isidore’s sons, Leo and Maxwell, and the novel shifts to the continual impact Isidore has on Leo’s life, including his choices, his self-worth, his attitudes, and his aspirations. Leo takes over as the central character and It is here we are also granted a window into the relationship dynamic between Leo and Maxwell, which eventually becomes the focus of the novel in the final chapters as the brothers embark on a cross country road trip together from California.

As the first chapter opens with hyper-masculine and rather crude language that put me off, I was prepared to dismiss the book. I’m really glad I didn’t and that I kept reading. Overall, I was very moved by the story Ratner paints for readers with his words, which, while at times are harsh and crude, more often than not are poetic and emotionally rich. When Ratner describes a scene as remembered or lived by Isidore or Leo I really feel like I am right there with them. Here is a bit of dialogue from later in the novel that gets at the heart of the conflict between Leo and Maxwell and demonstrates Ratner’s word skill:

“I was drowning two years ago and you didn’t even know. How could you know? You’d drop everything and fly to China for one of your friends but I could be on fire and you wouldn’t even notice, much less do anything about it unless I said, ‘Hey, I’m on fire, could you help extinguish me, perhaps by using a bucket of water?’ and even then you’d just say you couldn’t make it and wouldn’t tell me why and the reason would be you were going to your friend’s nephew’s birthday party, something really important like that.”

Aside from the dialogue and the rich scenery, another thing I really liked about In the Land of the Living is the way Ratner fills in many of the details of Isidore’s (and then Leo’s) life with flashbacks. He does it seamlessly and it feels like a very intimate way to develop the characters. Instead of watching a scene unfold as a third party, we are re-living it with the protagonist as if it had happened to us and was our memory.

There are few problems with this novel, but they are difficult to ignore. However as most of the novel is so compelling, these problems don’t change my overall recommendation that you buy and read this book.

My first complaint is that characters suddenly vanish with no explanation. The last we read of Dennis, Isidore’s younger brother, is in Chapter 6 where we learn he has followed in his brother steps and is attending Harvard. But what about after that? Why isn’t he meeting his nephews when Leo and Maxwell are born? Why didn’t he attend Isidore’s wedding? Likewise, Burt is mentioned in Chapter 7 – he has crashed his car, broken his teeth, and come begging Isidore for money. And then….nothing. We only know that Ezer is still alive in Chapter 9 because Isidore references him in the present tense while promising his son he will be a better father than Ezer is. I understand that there are only so many pages in a novel and Ratner probably doesn’t want to overwhelm readers with too much detail but it was a distraction to enjoying the view of Isidore’s life as adult to wonder what happened to his brothers to explain their absence from the scenes.

My second (and final) complaint is that some of the text needs to be tightened up. If this was a movie script, there are several vignettes I’d recommend for the cutting floor. Occasionally Ratner just takes us off on a tangent and I’m left wondering what the heck did what I just read have to do with anything else in this story? A prime example is in Chapter 4 where we are given the (true?) story behind the creator of superman. Ok, but why? And there is a whole section of internal monologue from Leo as he’s finishing up medical school that is rambling and mildly incoherent that doesn’t seem to explain much of anything. I think that Ratner just likes to tell stories for the sake of telling stories because if there is some subtle tie-in to the continuing plot I can’t find it in those meandering tangents.

I’m looking forward to Ratner’s next novel and now I will shift my attention to reading a story about sisters and mothers titled The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic. I didn’t deliberately plan this back to back reading with parallel themes of family and siblings but it’s rather nice that it’s worked out that way.

Benevolent Sexism


I started down a rabbit hole of googling because a woman on a message board I frequent was upset that men at her workplace act chivalrous- holding open doors for ladies, carrying boxes, letting them into elevators first, lending umbrellas, etc. She wanted to know if this was actionable under a typical HR department as sexism or discrimination. Several folks who replied said it is called ‘benevolent sexism’ and is a bad thing. So I found this article that summarizes research that indicates chivalry is the carrot (positive reinforcement) afforded to women who maintain the feminine gender role and is the flipside of the stick (derision, violence, ridicule, etc) used when women step outside of the feminine gender role. I never thought about chivalry like this or that it had that sort of subconscious purpose and effect. Now I happen to enjoy (a lot) the traditional gender roles and conforming to the feminine expectations of society and while I don't support the stick to keep people in line, I don't at all mind these carrots to encourage it. In fact it kind of depresses and terrifies me at the thought of being treated like a man (I like being cherished and protected by the men in my life). Having said that, I recognize that not everyone feels the same way and some feel stifled and offended by the norms. So we have a serious and ongoing societal conflict and all sorts of controversy about the norms: are they ordained by God (and should be accepted), are they rooted in biology (and does that make a difference in whether we support them or try to overcome them?), are they effective in making society a safe and successful place, and how do we handle those who genuinely lean toward either gender role, or the gender role they were born into? So many questions. Here is the article, FYI: http://www.sparksummit.com/2012/02/06/research-blog-%E2%80%9Cill-get-that-for-you%E2%80%9D-chivalry-is-alive-and-holding-your-boxes/

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Canning: My First Adventure

I’ve always had a passion for collecting and sampling unusual jams. My pantry is currently stocked with more than 20 varieties of jam from all over the world. Recently our roommate pointed out to me how much money I could save if I just canned my own jams. And then he let me sample his homemade blackberry jam and I thought he was really on to something. So, with his guidance, hubby and I picked out a pressure canner that will work well with our flat-top ceramic stove (the common modern flat-tops rule out many popular brands of pressure canners so make sure to do your research). We also purchased several sets of canning jars in half pint, pint, and quart sizes, tools for handling hot jars, and dissolvable fancy labels for our jars.

I’m getting pretty excited about our first canning session, and in preparation I’ve marked a number of recipes from Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, Put ‘em Up: A Preserving Guide and Cookbook, and Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber (her jams are all the rage in France and sell for over $10 a jar!). Here are the recipes I’ve decided to tackle this year, over the course of two or three canning sessions. Do you have any favorite canned goods you’d like to suggest I add to the list?

Fruit Sauces

apple pear sauce

cranberry sauce

peach melba compote

pasta sauce

salsa

Jams and Jellies

early grey jelly

thyme jelly

carrot orange cardamom jam

strawberry passion fruit jam

rhubarb honey rosemary jam

strawberry rhubarb jam

wild blueberry jam

raspberry lemongrass jam

vanilla apricot jam

wild blackberry jam

yellow and white peach jam

lemon curd

yellow peaches with lavender honey

Syrups

blueberry syrup

Whole Fruit

peaches in syrup

preserved tangerines in honey

Other

cherry mostarda

apple pie filling

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book Review: The Girls’ Guide To Love and Supper Clubs

One of my friends on goodreads.com recommended Dana Bate’s new novel and so I thought I’d give it a read. I’m a foodie that dabbles in gourmet dinner parties, I live in the metro DC area, and I’m pretty interested in the underground restaurant scene that is all the rage lately. These circumstances and my love of breezy ‘chick lit’ meant that The Girls’ Guide To Love and Supper Clubs was sure to be a book I’d enjoy and it was.

The protagonist, Hannah, is a smart and resourceful young woman living in DC and working the typical think tank job. She’s dating a handsome, wealthy, and upper crust type of fellow who is employed in the political arena. From the outside, life seems perfect, but on the inside, she’s unhappy. Like many DC types that have come before her, Hannah actually wants no part of the political policy scene and would rather spend her time on other pursuits, namely cooking. Cue a round of applause from the true life wonk who dropped out of life on Capitol Hill to open up Cake Love (a gourmet bakery) in downtown DC. Of course her parents don’t support these aspirations (might as well tell them you want to be a rock star) and her boyfriend begins to tire of her less-than-high-society demeanor as well.

It appears that something’s gotta give but Hannah isn’t quite ready to stand up to her parents or give up her dreams so she takes the route many would and finds a way to do it all without upsetting anyone, at least at first. As expected, things come crashing down spectacularly and she has to find a way to put everything right again.

It’s a great story, light reading, with a strong arc and happy ending (I love happy endings!). I never pick up on the clues in Sherlock Holmes stories and that always makes me feel dumb - no reader likes to feel dumb - so I also enjoyed feeling smart as Bate’s allowed the reader to tease out where Hannah’s relationship with her landlord was headed long before Hannah realized it.  My only criticism might be that Bate provided a less than convincing emotional conversion for one of the key characters at the end of the novel. I just don’t see it as plausible that a person would have such a dramatic change of heart (I don’t want to give away spoilers, but you’ll surely understand when you reach the final pages).

Overall recommendation: buy. Great beach reading.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Book Review: Plenty

I am always on the prowl for the latest and the greatest cookbook. Everyone has their preferences and I lean toward cookbooks that feature fresh ingredients, gourmet preparations and presentations, and an international flair.

I picked up Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi with these criteria in mind about a year ago when it was making the rounds as the hot new vegetarian cookbook. The author is originally from Israel and so of course middle eastern culture, ingredients, and technique heavily influence his repertoire. He owns a restaurant in London and for several years he wrote a column for The Guardian press on vegetarian cuisine. Pretty good for a chef who isn’t actually a vegetarian. He became well known for his creativity with fresh vegetables and the recipes laid out in Plenty are those that have appeared over the years in his Guardian column.

The cookbook itself is beautiful. The cover art (a shot of a row of roasted eggplants dressed with a yogurt pomegranate sauce) is appetizing and inviting and the book has a soft, thick, and durable cover. The recipes are organized according to main ingredient (a chapter on tomatoes for example) and there are many hand drawn illustrations throughout the book as well as full color photographs of prepared recipes.

Although the recipes are vegetarian, they are not vegan- eggs, yogurt, and cheese are featured frequently. For those who prefer not to exclude meat, I’m happy to advise that Ottolenghi’s recipes often provide an excellent base for meals to which meat can easily be included.

Things I have made from this cookbook:

  • Leek fritters

These were alright. Sautéed leeks and shallots, folded into an egg batter and fried. We dressed them with the suggested accompanying yogurt cilantro sauce and while I found them acceptable and would eat them again, I don’t get overly excited at the thought of them; they don’t make me drool with anticipation.

  • Chard and saffron omelets

This dish is a good way to get greens into your diet. A very thin omelet is prepared with a heavy handful of fresh herbs from the garden mixed in, then it’s stuff with cooked Swiss chard and sliced potatoes and drizzled with a light garlic yogurt sauce. It was pretty good, but the general audience I cooked it for asserted it would be even better with bacon crumbled into the filling.

  • Celeriac and lentils with hazelnut and mint

I thought this dish was very good, but again better suited as a side than a main entrée. You can’t really go wrong with hazelnuts! I’d definitely recommend this as a side to grilled lamb. That would be fabulous and the flavors would play off each other well.

  • Jerusalem artichokes with Manouri and basil oil

This recipe was difficult to source. I’ll save you some time and let you know than in most of the United States, Jerusalem artichokes (which don’t look like artichokes at all) are referred to as sunchokes and they’re actually a root vegetable. Finding them, and the Manouri cheese took trips to several different grocery stories before I lucked out (Wegman’s for the win!). As for the taste of the finished dish, again it was ok. It didn’t blow my socks off but it wasn’t terrible either.

Recommended with reservations

I guess I’m leading to a conclusion that, at least for me, the flavors expressed in Ottolenghi’s recipes are good (and good for you) but not strong enough to stand on their own. I plan to fall back on these recipes as side dishes for my non-vegetarian main entrees. I do have a number of other vegetarian cookbooks that feature recipes that are bold and spicy, or rich and deeply flavorful and those are the sorts of recipes that I can center a whole meal around. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book for vegetarians who won’t have meat to rely on to carry the meal. And of course this book is probably not for those who don’t a taste for middle eastern cuisine (lots and lots of yogurt, lemons, fresh herbs, olive oil).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost

Today is Pentecost. Today marks the celebration of the Christian church as a body and the moment when the church began - when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and first believers in front of a great multitude of witnesses.

I give you Acts, chapter 2:

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they (from Acts 1:15 we know there were about 120 in this group here referred to as ‘they’: In those days Peter stood up among the believers, a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them….22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[d] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:

“‘I saw the Lord always before me.

Because he is at my right hand,

I will not be shaken.

26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;

my body also will rest in hope,

27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,

you will not let your holy one see decay.

28 You have made known to me the paths of life;

you will fill me with joy in your presence.’[e]

29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried,and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:

“Sit at my right hand

35 until I make your enemies

a footstool for your feet.”’

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (emphasis mine)

Sidenote: Pentecost translates as ‘50 weeks’ and is the Greek name for the Feast of Weeks, a prominent feast in the calendar of ancient Israel celebrating the giving of the Law on Sinai. This feast is still celebrated in Judaism as Shavuot (source: Wikipedia). Because the events that took place in Acts as quoted above took place on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, it has become a shared holiday, albeit infused with different meanings.

-------------------------------------------

From 120 believers to over three thousand, in one day. Think about that for a moment. That’s some kind of revival! It was at this moment in history that God’s plan for the church through the Holy Spirit caught fire and really began to spread. And there is no stopping it. Those first three thousand? It seems that those were Jewish folk. But we know God didn’t stop there. In Acts 10, we are given a portrait of the first gentiles (i.e. non-Jewish people) to be folded into the Christian church:

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[b] and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water.They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

------------------------------------------------

So what we see here is that the Jewish folks- the ones who understood that in order to be welcomed into God’s family you must enter into Judaism including lopping off your foreskin and such, are shocked that God is sending his Holy Spirit down upon those who haven’t officially converted to Judaism in any capacity! Suddenly, God is coming to everyone and anyone, right where they are, without any hoops for them to jump through first. It’s new dawn! It’s a new day!

So of course this means great news for you and me here today in this modern world. God sends his Holy Spirit to us, right where we stand, and asks us to submit to his will and enter into relationship with him. You only have to say yes, and your journey begins.

The Methodist call to the faith through baptism of the Holy Spirit sums up the questions God has laid before us, the questions that each of us must answer. How do you answer them?

Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are

initiated into Christ’s holy Church.

We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts

of salvation and given new birth through

water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

On behalf of the whole Church,

I ask you:

Do you renounce the spiritual

forces of wickedness, reject the

evil powers of this world, and

repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you

to resist evil, injustice, and

oppression

in whatever forms they present

themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,

put your whole trust in his grace,

and promise to serve him as

your Lord,

in union with the Church which

Christ has opened

to people of all ages, nations,

and races?

According to the grace given to you,

will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church

and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?

Do you believe in God the Father?

Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

Likewise, there is a beautiful hymn named “The Summons” that puts the call of God into song:

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?

Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?

Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,

will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?

Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?

Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?

Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?

Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?

Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,

and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?

Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?

Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?

Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,

through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

The Summons

And finally, this original composition from SonRise Praise Band (our band at Grace United Methodist Church here in Manassas) captures the essence of the Holy Spirit and its role in the trinity.

SonRise sings Holy Trinity (among other songs)

How can i explain a love created before time?

A love that formed the vast expanse and told the light to shine

A love with no beginning, a love without end

This is the father's love

and it's where love began

There is one who rules the heavens in all his majesty

There is one who gave it all for sinners like me

There is one who dwells among us for all eternity

Godhead in three persons

Holy trinity

How can i explain a love that chose to be born?

A love that cared to show me love within a human form

a love so strong so deep he took the nails for me

This is the son's love

and it has set me free

There is one who rules the heavens in all his majesty

There is one who gave it all for sinners like me

There is one who dwells among us for all eternity

Godhead in three persons

Holy trinity

How can I explain a love sent from heaven to earth?

Descending like a dove and lightning at his rebirth

A loving counselor who's with me every day

It's the holy Spirit's love

and it guides me on my way

There is one who rules the heavens in all his majesty

There is one who gave it all for sinners like me

There is one who dwells among us for all eternity

Godhead in three persons

Holy trinity

So my friends, today, right now, is your moment. If you’re a believer already, let this be a moment of celebration as you recall when you entered into covenant with God and joined the church. And a moment of gratitude as you recount all the blessings God has bestowed upon you.

If you’re not yet a Christian, perhaps this is a moment of awakening and awe as you hear the call of our Holy Father and decide that today is the day you will embrace it and in turn allow the Holy Spirit to come over you. The decision is not be made lightly, the road is not easy, and joining the faith won’t render everything sunshine and roses from here on out. It will mean that you become a willing partner in something great, the amazing work of God unfolding all around us through the church. It will mean that from here on out you carry a peace with you that no one can ever take away and that you have the strongest shoulder in the history of shoulders to lean on when you are weak. It will mean your life changes forever for the better and you have finally come home to the father who loves you and welcomes you with open arms.

Happy Birthday to the Church and many blessings on all the faithful.

Book Review: Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, From Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan

 

Every home cook has a few favorite cookbooks. You know the ones. The cookbooks are filled with easy to follow recipes that look amazing and taste even better. Full color photos accompany several of the recipes and much like a good restaurant, you can’t go wrong no matter which item you choose from the offerings. Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, From Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan by Nancie McDermott is just that kind of cookbook.

I got interested in recreating authentic southern pecan pie after I enjoyed the house recipe while dining at the Eclectic Café in Memphis, TN (you really must go there if you’re passing through Memphis). I picked up Southern Pies in the hopes that at least one of the pecan pie recipes contained within could approximate the fantastic pie served at Eclectic Café. I wanted to save my formal review of the cookbook until I’d attempted the pecan pie recipe but the results of the two recipes I have already tried have been so great that I didn’t want to sit on my opinions any longer.

Hubby and I baked the Strawberry Rhubarb Lattice Pie a couple of weeks ago. The pie was perfectly sweet- not cloying but not tart either (if you like a more sour flavor you can cut the sugar back). It was also very pretty. It got such rave reviews in our house that we made it again last week for our brother and sister-in-law in Seattle while visiting them. I roped in my nephew as my sous chef and in no time at all the whole family was chowing down on the still warm pie fresh from the oven.

strawberry rhubarb lattice pie

Earlier this week I tackled the Amazing Coconut Pie. This is a custard based coconut pie that forms its own crust during the baking. Very clever and it was quite tasty with a lot of coconut throughout the custard (I hate those wimpy coconut pies that have nothing more than a few sprinklings of coconut hidden under layers of other ingredients). For best results I recommend you use frozen coconut pulp (available at most Asian grocery stores) and not that dried out sweetened bagged junk in the baking aisle.

As mentioned above, I will probably attempt one of the pecan pie recipes next. But no reason to stop there – McDermott’s cookbook is packed from cover to cover with creamy custard pies, ripe fruit pies, the usual meringue pie suspects, chess pies, and some interesting pies like bean pie or sweet potato pie. These aren’t McDermott’s original recipes by the way. She’s used this book as a way to present some of the best southern pie recipes she’s come across in her research, cleaning up the presentation and making slight modifications after taste testing the original recipes. She’s done a great job assembling a master collection of pies and I understand that she has another book out that’s done in a similar fashion aptly named Southern Cakes

I recommend this cookbook without hesitation. And here’s a bit of interesting trivia for you. While reading through this cookbook, my husband and I along with a friend of ours got into a friendly debate about what should top a cream pie (such as banana cream, coconut cream, or chocolate cream pie). Dear hubby and I both assert that obviously cream (whipped cream, or Chantilly cream as it is sometimes called) is the correct answer. Most southern cooks like McDermott however (and our friend, who is not from the south but from the midwest) think that a cream pie should be topped with meringue. It’s definitely a cultural and regional preference; I didn’t realize putting meringue on top of a cream pie was even an option till I started researching it. Better Homes and Garden cookbook opts for meringue while the Betty Crocker cookbook calls for cream. Martha Stewart prescribes cream for topping some of her cream pies but meringue for others. So the debate rages on. I would be interested to know what fellow readers have been raised to believe is the proper cream pie topping. 

Book Review: The Glorious Pasta of Italy

 

We have a tenant staying with us in our home this year. He knows I love to cook and so he procured a copy of Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Pasta of Italy for me as a Christmas present at the close of last year. I have very high standards when it comes to Italian cookbooks, having long ago fallen head over heels for the legendary work of Marcella Hazan and her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking which sets the standard for Italian cookery. So while I accepted Marchetti’s book gracefully, I  remained skeptical.

Thumbing through the book it’s obvious that it’s well planned. The chapters are thoughtfully arranged, with the first devoted to the basics of pasta enjoyment – the necessary equipment, a encyclopedic listing of pasta types, common pasta dough recipes, and the most essential of sauces such as fresh tomato. Subsequent chapters address pasta soups, pasta with sauce, stuffed pastas, baked pastas, quick pasta entrees, classic pasta recipes, over the top pasta “showstoppers”, and pasta based desserts. Marchetti’s book doesn’t seek to replace Hazan’s masterpiece so much as to expand upon it, focusing exclusively on pasta and incorporating modern techniques and witty commentary.

For my first foray into cooking from The Glorious Pasta of Italy I set about making Fettuccine in Bianco with White Asparagus, Asiago, and Cream. I’m really quite adverse to Asiago cheese so I substituted a delicious Italian aged cheese I picked up at the San Francisco Farmer’s Market recently, and I had trouble getting my hands on white asparagus and so substituted green, but otherwise made the dish as the recipe dictated. It was heavenly! Just heavenly! My husband and our tenant (his rent covers room and board, lucky fellow) spent the entirety of dinner that evening clinking their forks happily against their pasta bowls as they fed themselves, letting their free flowing grunts, mmms, and other expressions of ecstasy speak to their appreciation.

Next up was a pasta incorporating black pepper, parsley, and Parmigiano tossed with a traditional fresh Roma tomato sauce (Laura’s Black Pepper and Parsley ’Trnselle with Fresh Tomato Sauce). The sauce was so easy, especially since I own a handy food mill. I started with fresh tomatoes that were warmed and then run through the food mill to shed their skin and seeds and then cooked the resultant juice down to a rich, thick, and flavorful sauce with just the additions of garlic, olive oil, a dash of salt and fresh basil. No oregano or bay leaves or sugar was needed here! The fresh tomatoes were the stars of the evening and it was delicious. While everyone enjoyed the pasta, this time it was me who keep making the happy pleasure sounds. At least twice I exclaimed, “I am a kitchen goddess!”, and my guests happily agreed.

There are dozens and dozens more recipes to explore in Marchetti’s book and I can’t wait to try them all. I’m planning to make the Orecchiette with Creamy Broccoli Sauce next. Woe to the low carb dieters out there- this cookbook is sure to make them regret their carb free lifestyle.

As is obvious from my glowing praise, I think this cookbook is a winner. The only improvement I might suggest for the next edition is even more photography- one picture for every recipe is always appreciated.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: Salad of the Day

 

Georgeanne Brennan has authored a new cookbook in 2012, Salad of the Day, 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year. The chapters are laid out to follow the calendar year, with a large 2 page calendar spread at the beginning of each chapter giving a once glance view of the entire month’s recipes. In the subsequent pages of each chapter, Georgeanne provides the detailed recipes, including thoughtful comments. There are also many full page pictures of salads throughout the book.

I picked up this cookbook at Williams Sonoma in the beginning of April and have been cooking from it ever since. I love the organization of the recipes and I love that Georgeanne strives to highlight seasonal ingredients as we progress through the calendar year of recipes. I’ve made at least a dozen of her salads so far and I haven’t found one dud in the bunch yet! There are warm salads such as her Grilled Salmon, Potato, and Asparagus salad sprinkled throughout the cookbook and the cold salads are by no means traditional – every salad has a creative twist either in ingredients or presentation. The past two weeks have found me shopping for wheat berries, quinoa, pea shoots, green mangos, and more. Definitely not pedestrian.

I first heard of Georgeanne Brennan from my mother-in-law who has always wanted to take cooking lessons from Ms. Brennan out at her cooking studio and home in California. Unfortunately the weekend classes seem to fill within a day of being posted to her website and I’ve not been quick enough to snag reservations for us. Given how fantastic this cookbook is, I’m really keen to soak up some of her creative wisdom face to face now so I’ll be watching her website for openings in her classes a little more closely.

I think this cookbook would prove useful for just about everyone, including vegetarians and vegans. Granted it’s not strictly vegetarian but most of the salads are vegetarian or vegan and with simple adaptations they all can be. Brennan’s cookbook would also be great for those who want to eat healthier and incorporate greens and whole grains but have trouble coming up with ideas on how to do so, and more importantly how to do so deliciously. 365 different and delicious salads all at the ready and organized around seasonal ingredients. You really can’t do any better than that.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mother’s Day and Getting What You Asked For

Another Mother’s Day has come and gone. It’s always been a bit rough for me and this year I kept a handle on my emotions by staying away from social media until the day was nearly over.

As a daughter I find Mother’s Day to be a painful reminder of the joy and emotional intimacy between mother and child that I have always wanted but never experienced. My mother is still alive, but our relationship has always been strained and when I see the happy pictures of my friends celebrating with their mothers (especially the ones where they look so much alike) and read the ode to mother tributes I feel the little stabby pains of envy creeping in. I let myself grieve a bit each year when this special day rolls around for what was never to be and I turn the hurt over to God because he is the only one that can full the dark corners in the heart where a mother’s love should reach but couldn’t.

As a woman who is childless by choice Mother’s Day can also be a painful reminder that society not only values mothers (which is very very good) but also devalues women without children (which is hurtful and cruel). I am very blessed to have such loving and accepting friends in the Christian community who don’t tie my worth to bearing children, but out in the larger circles of the church and society it isn’t always the case. Common sentiments from happy parents such as “Now that I have children, my life truly has meaning” or “Children make life worth living” can cut like a knife with their subtle implications. And while I have chosen a life without children of my own volition I can only imagine the gut wrenching pain these comments induce for women who are infertile, who have miscarried, or who have lost children after birth.

For these reasons, I was so very please yesterday to attend a church service in Everett, WA (Northlake Christian Church http://www.northlakecc.org/) where Mother’s Day was acknowledged and blessed but NOT made the focus of the sermon. In this way we were able to honor mothers without inadvertently raining hurt down upon those who are wrestling with issues surrounding motherhood. The sermon was on the transformational power of praying together. A couple gave witness and testimony to how praying together nightly (a personal challenged issued to them by the pastor) has begun to change them and their marriage for the better in just the two weeks since they’ve started. At the conclusion of the service Pastor Steve challenged the entire congregation and all visitors to begin praying with a companion daily and to keep this habit through the end of this month. Jonathan and I have accepted the challenge and I am excited to see what great things God is going to do with this window we have opened up in our life to him.

In addition to the wonderful church service, we enjoyed many other happy moments this weekend. We flew into Seattle Friday night and spent all day Saturday with my husband’s brother and our sister-in-law and their children. I always look forward to our visits with them because there is such love and positive energy in their home. Their sons are crazy about their Uncle Jon and it warms my heart to see their faces light up when he plays with them. We went running and hiking through the park with our oldest nephew and enjoyed giggles and playtime with the younger kids. We even had a bit of cooking (we made a pie together and I also taught my nephew the secrets of transforming canned soup into a masterpiece lunch with a few added ingredients and spices). My sister-in-law is one of the most wonderful people I know. She’s open and friendly and always welcome us with hugs and kindness. I know that she’s got my back and she’s very trustworthy. And my brother-in-law is steadfast in his faith and works hard to model that for his sons and I very much admire that.

In thinking about mothers on the ride home from the airport last night, my mind was immediately drawn to my best friend (who is a very good and loving mother). I prayed that she had a very rewarding day of honor and I thanked God for bringing her into my life. Here is an interesting tidbit about my best friend: I prayed her into my life. I prayed for a long time (years in fact) for God to bring a good friend across my path with whom I could laugh and love and share a deep and edifying friendship. When it finally happened, it didn’t play out quite as I envisioned. Even for an extreme extrovert like myself, letting someone in so close and establishing such an emotionally intimate friendship has been hard. All the great fun and social companionship that I imagined is there and I am so happy about that. She has also been there by my side through some very difficult experiences such as the death of my father and my sister. But there is a whole other side of Christian friendship that I didn’t anticipate. The experiences I share with my best friend and the emotions that surround these experiences hold up a mirror to my eyes that reflects my deepest thoughts and feelings. And sometimes those thoughts and feelings are just ugly. At times I wrestle with envy or pride or fear (of rejection, of abandonment, of losing in comparison) in our friendship and I didn’t even know how deep these sinful tendencies ran into my soul until the Holy Spirit began uncovering them and rooting them out in the light of our friendship. In this way, our friendship has been edifying and I am a better person for it. Along the way I have seen her grow in her faith as well and the fruits of her discipleship to Christ continue to blossom and ripen. Of course in addition to these subtle acts of transformation going on behind the scenes there are the direct challenges to the ego and conscience that we lay upon each other as friends when we see each other heading off course. My best friend has saved me from myself more times than I can count. I find that the friendship that God has given me; the Christian friendship that I asked for, pushes me to grow and change in ways that are challenging and uncomfortable and sometimes when it seems too hard I want to give up and go back to being isolated and comfortable hiding in the darkness. But I won’t give up (and I suspect that if I tried my best friend would hunt me down and pull me back out of myself) because I hold fast to this truth: in our relationships with one another we are working out what it means to be like Christ; we are practicing (and sometimes fumbling) the real work of self-sacrifice and unconditional love and edification and we are better for it.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Book Review: From a Polish Country House Kitchen

 

My experience with Polish cuisine has been less than satisfactory, but until I visited Poland I assumed this could be blamed on lackluster American copies of Polish originals. I’d tried pierogies from the frozen section of the supermarket and kielbasa from Hillshire Farms and neither suited me. When I tried a fresh kielbasa prepared by a Polish housewife at an upstate New York church supper in the late 1990s, my theory was reinforced. This,THIS kielbasa wasn’t smoky or salty, it was sweet and rich and delicious hot off the grill. I dreamed of going to Poland one day to taste more of this meaty perfection and to sample the rest of what I was sure would be fantastic cuisine.

I finally visited Poland in late 2011- Krakow and Warsaw both. I eagerly stood in line at the Christmas Markets is downtown Krakow to taste authentic kielbasa. Guess what, it tastes exactly like Hillshire Farms! Sidenote: I contacted that Polish housewife when I returned to the states and she confirmed that fresh (not smoked) kielbasa is not the standard variety most people associated with Poland. I’m not a fan of that smoky flavor so it didn’t work for me at all. Over the next two weekends I ate my way through Krakow and Warsaw and other than one batch of mushroom pierogies from a dimly lit cellar restaurant, I could not find even one authentic Polish dish that I enjoyed. Clearly traditional Polish food and I are not compatible. I am an avid cookbook collector and like to frequently add to my collection with authentic cookbooks highlighting local ingredients and cuisine from my recent travels but I was so turned off by Polish cuisine that I did not bother to purchase a Polish cookbook during or upon returning from the trip.

So it was to my surprise that as I thumbed through From a Polish Country House Kitchen at a bookstore one afternoon, the recipes and the beautiful photography that accompanies them whetted my appetite. Here were almost a hundred recipes from Annie Applebaum, living in Poland, utilizing local and well known Polish ingredients (cucumbers, beets, fish, cabbage, etc) as well as some traditional Polish culinary forms (pierogi) but in ways I had not seen before.  Applebaum provides several recipes that are simple twists on Polish classics and yet many more that are reminiscent of the Polish larder while simultaneously betraying a cross cultural influence. This was Polish food, reimagined; this was Polish food I could get behind.

So far from the book I have sampled ‘Mizeria Dziadka Benjamina’ (Grandpa Ben’s Cucumber Salad), ‘Kotlet Schabowy’ (Wiener Schnitzel, Polish Style), and ‘Nalesniki’ (Rolled Pancakes with Jam). All of the recipes were clearly written, easy to follow, and Applebaum provides a short introduction for each describing the history and inspiration for the dish. I especially like that many recipes have both English and metric measurements provided.

While I admit I will probably find excuses to avoid attempting some of Applebaum’s recipes that seem to come a little too close to traditional Polish cuisine for my tastes (Beet Soup? No thanks.) there are many recipes I can’t wait to try such as Braised Cabbage with Wine and Nutmeg as well as Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Cognac Sauce.

I would think this cookbook would be an especially lovely gift for American expats living in Poland who need to lean heavily on ingredients available in Polish markets.

Potato Soup with Dill

Note: I made this soup patterned after a recipe I found online, but have since been unable to locate that inspiration recipe. There's a lot of flexibility in this soup - to use leeks or onions, to add in celery or not, to puree or not, to finish with cream or not. Let your mood and your ingredients on hand guide you.

Serves: 2 (with leftovers)

Season: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring

  • 1.5 pounds russet and/or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large leek, rinsed well and chopped (use just the white portion, discard the green tough tops, and make sure to really clean the leek well while fanning out the layers to get the dirt/sand out from between the layers) OR substitute 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 rib celery, peeled and diced (optional)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 T white wine, any variety
  • 2 T unsalted butter
  • 1 quart chicken stock (I use chicken base + water)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • copious amounts of fresh dill
  • milk or cream, to taste (optional)

Bring water to boil in a medium saucepot and boil the potatoes until tender.

While potatoes are cooking, warm 1-2 T of oil in a sauté pan large enough to fit the leek or onion, the carrot, and the celery (optional; improves flavor but if you don't have any on hand the soup will not suffer much). Add the leek or onion along with the carrot and celery and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Sauté the vegetables until the leek or onion is nearly tender. Add in the garlic and sauté until the garlic is tender. Use the wine to deglaze the pan but make sure to let the alcohol cook off after you add it to the pan.

When potatoes are tender, drain and rinse. Return to the saucepot and add 2 T of butter, the leek mixture of vegetables. Add stock, bay leaf, and fresh dill sprigs to taste. Bring this to a boil and then turn heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and then partially or completely puree the soup in a blender (or using a hand blender in the pot), depending on your preference for chunky or smooth soup. Add soup back to the pot and season with salt and pepper to taste. Optional: finish the soup with milk or cream to taste. Garnish with any additional remaining dill.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Beginnings and Endings

This week marks the end of my first full semester of graduate school at the University of Michigan in the MS in Computer Science and Information Systems program. I was enrolled in coursework in Autumn 2012, but those classes were actually senior level computer science undergraduate courses recommended by the university to fill the gaps in my knowledge due to not having a Bachelor’s of Science degree (I have a BA in psychology from New Mexico State University).

It was a very challenging semester both in terms of the content of the coursework (so much math at times) and the requirement to balance the coursework with my full time career, my full time role as a wife and my leisure hobby of weekend travel. There were quite a few weekends whilst we were en route to Asia that I had to maintain the self-discipline to study on the plane. Luckily, I was smart enough to enlist the assistance of both my husband and and my closest female friend to help keep me on track with accountability and peer pressure. And also I was lucky to have not only my husband, but additionally our friend who is an engineer (currently residing with us while on contract for a local company) to help tutor me in the math where I was lacking such as vectors and other linear algebra basics.

I cleared the semester with an A- in Computer Architecture and an A in Information Retrieval. The architecture course was really an eye opener with regard to the newest processor technology coming down the pike. We learned all about Symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) and other sorts of common processor configurations. We dove deep into pipelining and other subject areas that were addressed only lightly in my undergraduate computer architecture course. All of the information was directly relevant to my current job and as a bonus a lot of the papers coming out of my industry regarding analytics are framed with regard to processor technology and now I better understand those relationships. My course on information systems covered the history of information retrieval and we spent most of the class learning the algorithms that drive search results and the ranking of those results. I’ve come out of the course with a much greater appreciation for the math and science that is behind companies like Google. Handling multiple languages, trillions of documents, spelling errors in queries AND in the related documents you want to return, categorization of documents, etc - this is all pretty complex stuff that I never much gave thought to previously. Which really speaks to the beauty of technology - we can use it successfully without really ever understanding how it works or what’s going on “under the hood” so to speak. But it sure is nice after being in this field for 10 years to not only be adept at using the technology but finally to truly understand the wizardry behind the curtain.

The university does not offer summer graduate courses (except for thesis work) so I’ll be returning to the daily grind of classes when September rolls around again.

Just as the school semester is ending, recent projects at work are also wrapping up. Actually, work has been going pretty well for me, but not as well for the husband. Both of our companies have been undergoing some major reorganizational changes as of late in the pursuit of greater profitability. For my company (CSC) that means restructuring the employees into different groups (or at minimum renaming groups to more accurately reflect their focus), realigning job titles, revamping our mission and value statements, reducing the complexity of our organizational structure (mostly by taking out excessive layers of middle management), changing the way we pursue and capture new and rebid business contracts, and rededicating the whole company to a focus on customer and shareholder value. I have to report that so far it’s working very well, especially as reflected in the CSC share price. I feel more invigorated and pleased to be working for the company than ever before and I’m excited to continue marching down the road of success as the last of the changes are implemented.

Unfortunately at my husband’s company things are not going quite as smoothly. I suspect that many of the changes have not been as carefully planned or executed and much of the modifications appear from the outside to be random panic layoffs in order to move the company structure as quickly as possible back into alignment with the original owner’s vision (who recently has retaken control of the company). So far the random layoffs have not hit my husband’s job but we are of course concerned that may not hold true for much longer. And of course with such pressure hanging over the remaining employees’ heads, the workplace has become one of stress and poor morale.

Speaking of work, I recently returned from San Francisco (one of my favorite cities!) where I attended SAS Global Forum 2013. This is the annual, international SAS conference (SAS is the analytic software I specialize in). I was really excited to go this year as I was invited to present a paper I’ve written, “SAS Enterprise Business Intelligence (EBI) Deployments in the Federal Sector: Best Practices”, as well as to serve on a panel discussion on SAS Administration. This was the first professional paper I’ve ever presented at a national conference and I consider it my debut; my beginning in professional speaking. Thank goodness for all those years in Toastmasters! I’m looking forward to next year’s conference already and sketching out paper ideas for submission (I’m leaning toward “The Many Hats of a SAS Administrator: An Insider’s Guide on Becoming an Indispensable Asset in Your Organization”). It was really great to catch up with industry colleagues from all over the country and of course to explore more of San Francisco on the downtime. I got the chance to visit both the farmer’s market held at the Ferry building and the one held at the Civic center. In fact, I followed the advice of my good friend and brought along an entire extra suitcase to carry home produce and other goodies from the market. Lemongrass stalks at 10 for $1? Yes please! Chrysanthemum greens? Alright! And so on…

I also spent a half day with a friend in the Sunset district where we hiked up Grand View Hill. It’s the oldest and last remaining sand dune in San Francisco. Once all the houses were built along the shoreline, the sand was forever cut off from blowing across the landscape and the sand dunes gradually disappeared. At the top of the Grand View Hill we were treated to a 360 degree view of the entire San Francisco area including downtown, the Bay bridge, Golden Gate bridge, Golden Gate park, Twin Peaks, and more. It was absolutely beautiful.

SFO_Panarama

After descending Grand View Hill we walked down the lovely mosaic steps (here’s a link to the best picture of the entire staircase: http://www.sfmuralarts.com/pics/1424.jpg) before catching a bus back to downtown San Francisco.

One other notable stop during my time in the city was the dinner I enjoyed at Fang’s Restaurant. While this boutique Chinese restaurant offers a standard menu with daily specials, there is also the possibility of ordering off menu for those in the know. I had been tipped off by a fellow frequent flier that a simple request to the owner or senior waitstaff will find you the recipient of a custom menu based around your taste preferences. I was in the mood for eggplant and so I was brought a starter salad of tomato, Asian pear, herbs and rice crackers dressed deliciously followed by a main entrée of sautéed eggplant and fried shrimp in a sweet honey sauce. They would have continued with dessert if I hadn’t waved it away on account of feeling full from the generous portions of the salad and entrée. Really some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s very convenient also – a few blocks south of Market street near the financial district.

Let’s talk new beginnings. I’m guessing you’ve noticed the sharp uptick in the book reviews I’ve been posting lately? There’s a story behind that (of course there is!). I’ve always enjoyed reading anything I can get my hands on and I have been working diligently on curating a fantastic collection of cookbooks from all around the world as we travel. Recently I have decided to formally join the ranks of semi-professional book reviewers. I got things started by joining the National Book Critics Circle for a nominal annual fee and this self-appointed new hobby consists mostly of selecting books I’d like to read (especially cookbooks I’d like to add to my collection), soliciting complimentary review copies from the associated publishers, reading the material end to end, and posting informative reviews on Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, and here on my blog. Occasionally publishers request I submit feedback directly to them as well. And of course I’m careful to keep integrity at the forefront, never allowing the book-for-review exchange to slant my reviews for the benefit of the publisher or author. Indeed, some of the reviews I’ve posted lately should be strong evidence of that. I thought hubby would be quite excited to learn I’ve stumbled upon an ingenious way to fund my cookbook collection from here on out, but he just put his head in his hands and whimpered “not more cookbooks”. What can you do? I told him to be glad I’m not a car collector. Anyway, the onslaught of cookbook reviews will inevitably continue each week, but for easy sorting for those of you on the mailing list, remember that the subject line always reflects the content of the post and so will contain ‘book review’. That should allow you to auto-sort the book reviews away from the main stream of incoming blog posts should you not wish to read them (but of course I encourage you to read them!).

Book Review: The Daily Soup

I’ve owned The Daily Soup  by Leslie Kaul and Bob Spiegal since 2005. It was that year that I decided to establish a weekly ‘Souper Saturday’ tradition in our home (wherein we enjoy soup paired salad or sandwiches each Saturday) and so was on the prowl for high quality soup recipes. The Daily Soup has not disappointed. The instructions are clear and easy to follow, the ingredients are easy to source, and the soups that result are delicious. My favorite soup so far from the collection is ‘Roasted Eggplant Parmesan’ (p.29). It’s everything wonderful about traditional eggplant parmesan, ladled into a bowl. There are soups for everyone in this cookbook including vegetarian and dairy free. The recipes are grouped by major ingredient such as corn, tomato, or grain, which is useful when you have specific ingredients you’d like to use and find a recipe to accompany.

One suggestion for this author team or for other authors putting together a soup cookbook any cookbook is to include more pictures of the prepared dishes. While such pictures aren’t absolutely necessary, they add a little something extra to the cookbook and give readers an idea of how the finished dishes should look including hints on garnishing. And of course great pictures also help to sell the book, bring the recipes to life in a very visceral and appetizing format.

I’ve read that the Daily Soup restaurant in NYC from which this cookbook was adapted has since shuttered its doors.That means the only place to try the chefs’ creations is in your own home using The Daily Soup.

Book Review: Amity and Sorrow

Amity and Sorrow is quite the unusual novel by Peggy Riley. It opens on the scene of a mother, Amaranth, driving her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow, down an Oklahoma country road. It quickly becomes evident that they are on the run from someone or something. Because the daughters are literally bound to one another via their arms in the backseat, and because the language is evocative of the south, I first assumed this was a story about an escape from slavery. Which it is, I suppose, but not in the traditional African slave trade context.

Amity and Sorrow are the daughters of a polygamous cult leader and his first wife (among many many wives). They’ve escaped from the cult’s homesteading compound in Utah following a police raid. As the story slowly unravels we learn more about the destructive power of the cult and their father’s leadership. The family is in shambles emotionally and financially and their cultural identity and experiences are very different than those of the people they encounter in the world outside of the compound.

The novel is dark and yet hopeful as we root for the transformation and healing of the young girls and their mother as we follow the novel to its conclusion. One of the daughters, Amity has been less twisted and less damaged by her time in the cult while Sorrow has been scarred deeply in so many ways it’s not clear she’s entirely redeemable.

While I enjoyed the plot and pacing of Riley’s novel, the dialogue at times seemed forced and artificial. As I mentioned previously, there is, at times, an ‘old southern world’ feel to the dialogue that doesn’t fit the modern era the story is supposed to take place in. And the scenes surrounding first interactions with a computer and with other modern technology seem really quite contrived and plastic. Still, the novel can stand on its other merits. Overall 3 stars.

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins

While traveling cross-country last weekend, I passed the time reading novels I’d recently received. One of these was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. The book is simply fantastic. Walter presents a moving story encompassing friendship and love that spans a lifetime.

Pasquale is a deep and soulful innkeeper in a rarely visited, small Italian village. He dreams of running a large, profitable, and popular resort that would serve as a beacon for adventurous American tourists but when Americans do venture onto his island home they are few and far between and transpires is nothing as he’s imagined. It’s better.

The novel unwinds Pasquale’s story and those of his two American guests, tracing their paths across continents and back together again to a satisfying and beautiful conclusion.

Walter draws a portrait of each character so multi-faceted that we learn to love and identify with each of them, regardless of their foibles. Walter even manages to weave in real-life events and figures (Elizabeth Taylor) in a way that is natural and believable and not at all forced, awkward, or artificial.

Common to the greatest of books, the feelings that welled up when I reached the end of Beautiful Ruins were bittersweet joy (these characters will live on in my mind indefinitely), an aspiration to write a novel (I want to write like this! I want to make people feel this way! I want to bring characters alive just like this!), and an immediate desire to hunt down the rest of Walter’s books to add to my “must read” list.