Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review: Bread & Wine

I really wanted to like Shauna Niequist’s new book, Bread & Wine. I love cooking, dinner parties, and fellowship and these are just the things Niequist writes about for 250+ pages. Her writing style is lovely and she has included several of her favorite recipes interspersed among her personal essays. I just felt that something fell flat for me here; there was nothing that drew me in and deeply engaged me. A good book, like a good date, requires chemistry and emotional impact. Perhaps it is because many of her essays focused on motherhood and pregnancy and miscarriages and I don’t have those shared experiences to bind us.

Although this book doesn’t quite hit the right notes for me, I’ll be passing a recommendation for it it along to those I fellowship with who are mothers. I suspect they will better appreciate Niequist’s perspective.

Canning and Preserving 101

Canning and preserving: our mothers did it, our grandmothers did it, and many of us wistfully dream of capturing the best of every season ourselves. But it seems a bit intimidating at first glance.
Before we can begin, we must assemble our equipment.
First we start with our pressure canner, a necessity for canning many foods and a time saver for all foods. If you've got a modern flattop ceramic stove, pay close attention and make sure to buy a canner approved for ceramic tops (the selected canner MUST have a completely flat bottom) like the Presto 16 quart aluminum one that we own.

You’ll also need equipment to handle the jars during the canning process and both Presto and Ball make a nice 7 piece kit that includes a funnel, jar holder, and other items.

Of course you’ll need canning jars, and I recommend, at minimum, a set of half-pints (for jam), pints (for salsa, bbq sauce, pickles, and fruit in syrup), and quarts (for tomato sauce). If you’re going to be giving away your preserves as gifts, Ball makes handy dissolvable jar labels as well.

So you’ve purchased your equipment, but what will you preserve and how will you preserve it?
Christine Ferber is a jam aficionado from France whose creations are distributed in small batches via the finest hotels, shops, and restaurants across Europe, bringing in over 2 million dollars a year in profit. From jam! Priced typically at 10 euros or more for a jar, her preserves are quite a luxury and highly regarded in culinary circles. Fortunately she’s released a cookbook, Mes Confitures, that details her recipes and techniques so that we can affordably enjoy her jams without having to purchase them retail. No pectin powders here! Every jam takes two to three days to make with each recipe calling for the fruit to be cooked down multiple times to create a thick jam consistency. Earlier this month we held our first annual canning party and we prepared a couple of jams from Ferber’s book. Some of them set (the honey rhubarb rosemary is amazing as is the carrot cardamom), but unfortunately the largest batch of strawberry that we attempted did not reach jam thickness because I tried to shortcut the method when pressed for time, macerating the strawberries for a much shorter time than called for and only draining and boiling the syrup once. This resulted in strawberries going into the final jam that were much more watery than they should have been, preventing the jam from setting properly. Luckily we enjoy strawberries in syrup just as much as we enjoy strawberry jam so all is not lost. A lot of delicious cakes, bowls of ice cream, and crepes will be adorned with the 9 pints of strawberry jam syrup we created. Note that Ferber does not include any detailed instructions on how to process the jars of jam for storage, so if you’re new to canning you’ll need some standard “how-to” canning books in addition to her cookbook. We found that processing jams from Mes Confitures at 10 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure after the canner had been emptied of excess air (10 minutes of boiling with the lid on and locked) and brought up to pressure did the trick.

In addition to the very time consuming recipes provided by Ferber, we also leaned heavily on a preserving cookbook that I recently received an advanced review copy of titled Put em Up!, by Sherri Brooks Vinton. Vinton walks readers through preparing various types of preserved foods (including dried and frozen recipes) and then also provides useful recipes that incorporate the items. During our canning party we tried our hand at her recipes for thyme jelly and early grey tea jelly. Like Ferber, Vinton eschews industrial pectin; instead she recommends creating homemade pectin concentrate by boiling down tart apples, skin, seeds, and all. The thyme jelly set perfectly but the earl grey is a bit loose. Both were easy to make.

And lets not forget the old standby, Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, by Lauren Devine. This is the gold standard in preserving “how-to” covering all manner of foods from jams to pickles, to meats, and it provides explicit details on both the water bath and pressure cooker methods. A bit pedestrian in nature (you won’t find any rose petal jam or honey thyme rhubarb here), this cookbook nevertheless is an indispensable asset in home canning. And I’ll admit that sometimes you just want plain old-fashioned ordinary jam instead of something highbrow and fru-fru. During our recent canning party we didn’t rely on this book for recipes, but we used it heavily for advice on technique.

Next month brings ripe currants (black, red, and white), peaches, blackberries, cherries, and tomatoes to our door. We have our second canning party scheduled for July 13th and everyone is looking forward to it. Getting together with a group of women (and some earnest fellas) is a lot of fun when it’s done in the spirit of recreation and fellowship and viewed as a choice. It’s especially nice when you review the cost savings over buying similar products at the store. Bonus: no artificial preservatives, flavors, or colors!  I do imagine the laborious efforts required (six of us spent 5 hours working diligently in our last canning session) would prove tedious and a lot less entertaining if these canning sessions were not merely optional but mandatory to ensure we didn’t starve over the long winter, as was the case in the old days.

Book Review: A Fatal Likeness

How many of you know anything about the author Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein? Me, I knew next to nothing about her prior to this week; I’ve never even read Frankenstein. I can now say however, I know a significant amount about Ms. Shelley, her husband, her step-sister Claire, and their private torrid affairs. This is because I just finished A Fatal Likeness by Lynne Shepherd which, although a work of fiction, details many of the factual elements of Shelley’s life and relationships.

The blended (part truth, part fiction) history of Mary Shelley unfolds as our protagonist and detective, Maddox is immersed in a she-said he-said she-said case that has him confused and flip flopping back and forth in his estimations of who is telling him the truth. The overly controlling daughter-in-law of Mary hires him to investigate a woman who they believe may be holding documents regarding Mary that may prove unsavory to her reputation. They wish Maddox to determine whether this woman, Claire, actually has the documents. Soon it becomes quite obvious to Maddox that Mary, her son, and her daughter-in-law aren’t providing him with the full story and have been manipulating him all along. But Claire is far from completely honest herself. To complicate matters, while trying to sort out the truth Maddox learns of his own family’s ties to Mary and Claire and it’s these ties that eventually lead him to unravel the mystery of Mary’s past.

A Fatal Likeness is a fascinating read that expertly blends the historical record and Shepherd’s imaginings. She’s woven truth and fiction so convincingly that I can’t keep them distinct in my memory after finishing the book. Quite a testimony to her skill as a writer and yet quite the shame for Mary Shelley’s legacy as Shepard’s telling of her life would be nothing short of libel were Shelley still alive (odd caveat of our American legal system: since libel equals portraying a person or their actions in a character assassinating light against their protestations that such portrayal is inaccurate it’s impossible to libel the dead since a required element – the protest – is impossible). Shelley comes out of this novel as a very very bad girl.

The novel kept me engaged, pushed me to research Mary Shelley’s life while reading the novel in parallel, and has stoked my interest in actually reading Shelley’s work as well as Shepherd’s other novels.

A Fatal Likeness hits bookstores August 20th but you can pre-order it today from

Recommendation: BUY.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Data Community DC Event Review

My review for the recent Data community DC Event held at George Washington University is now live on their website:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Review: The Boy Who Could See Demons


The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke is quite extraordinary. I could not put this book down once I started it.

Alex is a young and troubled boy, growing up impoverished under the care of his mother, Cindy, in Belfast, Ireland. His father has abandoned them through a sudden and traumatic event that is slowly teased out of Alex's memory as the novel progresses; meanwhile his mother wrestles with depression and self-harming tendencies. Cindy's most recent suicide attempt brings Alex under the lens of the local authorities, and Anya Molokova takes over as his primary psychiatrist. Soon Anya discovers that Alex believes himself to be surrounded by demons and one of them, Ruen, has established a particularly close and disturbing relationship with the boy. As Anya gets pulled deeper into Alex's life and bonds with the boy in an attempt to properly diagnose him she asks the important questions: 

What does Ruen represent for Alex? 
Is Ruen a manifestation of schizophrenia?
Can something be done to rid Alex of Ruen?

But soon, Ruen, speaking through Alex, begins to turn the inquiry toward Anya. Alex begins to question Anya about events that seemingly no one else knows about. In turn, Anya begins to question whether Ruen might actually be who Alex claims he is. She is haunted by the memories of the life and death of own daughter and she begins to find it difficult to emotionally separate her patient and his increasingly bizarre and dangerous episodes of apparent self-harm from her feelings surrounding her daughter's mental illness and suicide. 

Jess-Cooke shifts between the voice of Alex and that of Anya frequently, giving them alternating chapters in the novel. This technique provides readers with the ability to really get a feel for each of these characters from the inside looking out and it works very well to build the suspense and keep the thrilling pace.

At the height of a dramatic scene that finds Alex and Anya alone in a room together at the local inpatient mental facility, Jess-Cooke turns the plot suddenly in a surprising direction to conclude the story.  Very well written and very effective. I love this book! Buy this book! Read this book! 

Also, this definitely needs to be made into a movie. This would be an excellent movie. Are you paying attention Hollywood?

 The Boy Who Could See Demons will be released on August 13, 2013. Find it at or your local bookseller.

Book Review: Enon

Paul Harding, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers has written a new novel titled Enon. It hits bookstores in early September, but interested readers can pre-order the book now at

While rich in its prose, Enon is one of the most depressing books I've ever read. Our protagonist, Charlie Crosby, looses his daughter in a terrible accident and it causes his entire life to unravel. For some there is a voyeuristic pleasure in observing, from a safe distance, the depravity of a lost soul and novels (like this) and movies (I point you to American Beauty) that feed this appetite satisfy. For others, watching hurt and damaged people wrestle with demons to no avail in an agonizing dance that continues long after the music stops is painful and horrifying. I am in the latter grouping and so this book is not for me. Not for me at all. In short: do you find enjoyment in reading about drug addiction, overwhelming penetrative grief, isolation, and despair? In turning page after page to find the misery and sorrow just go on and on? Then this book is for you. Otherwise, not so much.

Also, a mild criticism on the voice that is given to Charlie: he is painted as an everyday blue collar handyman by trade, presumed to be lacking a college education, and yet his inner dialogue is quite intellectual. Works as a grunt, but thinks like a scholar? This seems contradictory.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What Lies Beneath

Hubby and I spent our time over the weekend with my brother-in-law (we shall call him BIL for short and he is hubby’s brother)  and his family out in Colorado Springs. 

BIL is a twenty one year veteran of the US Air Force. Soon after hubby and I had just begun dating in college, BIL was heading off to his first Air Force assignment out in California. In fact, my first visit to hubby’s house in college involved meeting BIL and BIL’s friends (wherein they gave hubby a lot of ribbing over having a girlfriend) as they were getting together for some final celebrating before BIL moved away. In this way, BIL will always be tied up in my memories of those first few weeks with hubby and I look back on them, and him, fondly. Over the years BIL and his family have moved around the country as he progressed in rank and we’ve always enjoyed dropping in to see them wherever they were stationed.

Because I was there at the time of his send off into the military it seemed fitting that I should be there for his retirement from the service. And that is why we jumped at the chance to attend his formal retirement ceremony on Friday. With the cashing in of a vacation day at work, a plane ride, and with a lot of happiness in our hearts, hubby and I were off to Colorado Springs on Thursday evening.

The retirement ceremony was held at the US Air Force Academy Golf Club and the grounds are absolutely beautiful. The greens are actually *very* green and the mountains provide a lovely backdrop. Of course we were inside for the ceremony; the room that hosted the event was more than adequate.

The ceremony began and a lot of the usual sort of things that happen at these type of events transpired (invocation, national anthem, flag folding, etc.). As to be expected a gentleman or two got up to speak to and about BIL and his record of service. That’s about the time I was sitting down patiently waiting for the speaker to get into the meat of his rah rah rah “it’s been great working with you” speech. And that’s when I (and hubby and hubby’s parents and almost everyone else in the room) all discovered that there is so much more to BIL than what he appears to be.

The speaker chronicled BIL’s career in the Air Force and what was revealed as he described each assignment was that at every step of BIL’s tenure with the Air Force he has been a top performer, going well above and beyond his peers, his previous successes, and the high standards of the service. During the speech we learned just how many times (so many times!) the projects BIL touched turned to gold and the teams he led or participated in were ranked as elite performers - landing top honors (including X of the year awards) and accolades from across the country. We learned about the ways in which his work directly affected the security of our country and saved countless lives. It was moving and it was surprising. All these years, I just assumed BIL was a good person and an average military fellow. Because he doesn’t talk much about his work (for obvious reasons) I had no idea of what he really did until Friday and because he does what he does with his head down in service to God for the benefit of others instead of the benefit of his own ego, I had no idea how impressive and important he is. All these years of giving 100% and quietly accomplishing incredible feats and never letting on, even to his family, as the awards piled up and the recognition by and within the Air Force continued to grow. I’m just in awe. I mean when I get an award, there I am on Facebook 5 minutes later, excitedly sharing with my friends, “HEY FRIENDS, GUESS WHO JUST GOT AN AWARD? YEAH, ME, THAT’S RIGHT, I DID!” and soaking up the praise for the pleasure it brings, and yet BIL didn’t even tell his wife about all of his amazing deeds and associated recognition and awards. And it’s surely doesn’t count as bragging to tell your spouse your exciting news, right? I mean they’re like an extension of yourself. But no, he kept it to himself. Because he isn’t about praise, or recognition or social branding. He is about integrity and doing your best because it’s the right thing to do.

When we move in for a closer examination, we find out what lies beneath the surface of a friend or family member’s persona, what’s deep in their heart and what they value. What would people find if they could see into your heart? How nice it is to find out that someone is even more wonderful than you ever imagined. And what an inspiration my BIL is – he makes me want to work harder every day, do all sorts of amazing things for God, and keep it secret from all of you so that I know I’m doing my good deeds for the glory of God instead of the praise of man.

Matthew 6:1-4 Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Galatians 6:9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Philippians 2:13 For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Book Review: Anonymous Sources

Just finished an advanced reader’s copy of Anonymous Sources by Mary Louise Kelly. Overall, it’s an enjoyable read offering suspense, intrigue, and a fast paced plot. I like to think of it as a chick lit version of a Tom Clancy novel as it’s a bit softer and less gritty or coarse in its language and plot sequencing.

The protagonist, Alexandra James, is a American newspaper reporter living in Boston who covers the higher education beat. Her latest assignment takes her to Harvard to report on the mysterious death of a former student on campus and eventually it takes her far outside the bounds of her ordinary job and across the Atlantic ocean to England. Along the way she falls into danger, into the bed of a sexy graduate student, and into the middle of a terrorist plot involving Pakistan scientists, the CIA, the FBI, and the president’s staff in the White House.

Mary Louise Kelly’s prose is generally well written but Alexandra was presented as a bit too dense for my liking. I take forever to pick up on clues (I’m terrible at reading Sherlock Holmes!) and so when I can figure out the bad guys and what’s going on before the protagonist does it seems a bit artificial for me. Having said that, this minor defect does not diminish the novel overall and it’s still worth the read. I will definitely pick up Kelly’s next novel and I recommend Anonymous Sources as one of this summer’s best chick lit political thrillers.

The novel goes on sale June 16th, 2013. You can pick up your copy at a local bookstore or pre-order it on Happy reading!

Book Review: Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa

Ben Constable has written a book about, well, Ben Constable. In Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa we are treated to a dark and psychologically gripping story of our protagonist, Ben Constable, and his friend Tomomi (who goes by the nickname Butterfly). The novel opens with Ben and Butterfly exchanging letters about a book that Ben plans to write. The rest of the novel details the experiences of Ben after he is notified of Tomomi’s death. The dialogue is clever and draws the reader in to the heart of the suspense and action. The revelation that Tomomi has committed suicide sends Ben off on a wild goose chase of a scavenger hunt that was set in place by Tomomi herself. Soon it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems and that Ben never really knew Tomomi or what she was capable of.  As Ben questions his relationship with Tomomi and asks himself what kind of darkness may have been hidden in her heart, he begins to realize, as does the reader, that he may be in grave danger. Will he unravel the mysteries Tomomi has left behind for him? Is each clue leading him toward his own death? And can we ever really know our friends? These are the questions we ask ourselves as we move toward the end of Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa.

By the time we reach the conclusion, we start to ask different questions. Is Tomomi a real person known to the author and is the exchange in the beginning of the novel perhaps genuine? Is the rest of the novel his fulfillment of a promise to write a fictional novel about their relationship? Or are the letters in the opening chapter the voice of not Ben the author but Ben the protagonist and the rest of the novel his ‘fictional’ story (story within a story for the win). It’s also hinted at that perhaps the letter exchange belongs to the protagonist but that the story that follows is Tomomi’s (the character) fictional account as she too suggests at the beginning that she might write a novel. And of course the other possibilities include that the letters and the rest of the novel are “real” within the universe constructed by the author (i.e. a “true” tale of what transpired between those that wrote the letters that open the novel), and either recounted by the protagonist or Tomomi. If Tomomi is indeed the writer of the ensuing “true” story instead of Ben, it is implied that she may have tweaked the story to blend truth with fiction (just as her character does within the story). Confused yet?

Turning over these questions would be a great intellectual exercise for any book group – especially over a bottle of French wine to fit one of the more delicious plot points of the novel.  

Getting to the end of this novel is a bit of a mind game like getting to the end of The Matrix.  Likewise I think Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa would make an excellent screenplay and Hollywood drama that would leave the audience asking thoughtful questions as they left the theatre.

Book Review: Skinny Bitch in Love


Kim Barnouin is a successful author, speaker, and lifestyle coach who has guided many women to healthier eating through her ‘Skinny Bitch’ lifestyle books and associated cookbooks. Skinny Bitch in Love is her first foray into full length fiction and it’s a success.

Barnouin spins a delightful and upbeat tale of romance in her new novel. Clem is a vegan chef who aspires to open her own restaurant. Just when she’s picked out the perfect locale, a cocky yet charming fellow leases the lot out from under her for his soon-to-be-opening steakhouse. Drama, hilarity, and passion ensue.

While Barnouin’s tale follows the “sworn opposition drawn together by passion” trope, she doesn’t lay out all the cards on the table and deliver a predictable story arc. Instead, she keeps the reader guessing right to the end of the novel, using the push-pull dynamic of Clem and her love interests (there are multiple suitors) to build suspense. Whoever you’re rooting for Clem to choose is likely to change a few times as the story progresses.

I really liked this book, and I look forward to Barnouin’s next novel. I also appreciate that Barnouin didn’t attempt to hijack her novel and turn it into a full on propaganda piece for her vegan lifestyle philosophy that she pushes in her non-fiction pieces. True, the protagonist in Skinny Bitch in Love is a passionate vegan, but it’s entirely reasonable inside the storyline and Barnouin resists the temptation to make this plot point any larger than it needed to be. A great summer read!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book Review: Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart

I received Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline Nguyen as a Christmas present a few years ago from my mother-in-law; it has become one of my most treasured cookbooks. And it’s so much more than just a cookbook – Chef Nguyen has woven the stories of her family’s history into the pages of recipes and it makes for great reading curled up on a chair with a warm cup of tea. Here is a family that risked everything to escape Vietnam during the war and rebuilt their lives in Australia. Here is a family that set food as its centerpiece with each member of the family involved in restaurant operations. Here is a family, broken and bruised, held together at times only by their shared history and cuisine.

Aside from the compelling storytelling, Nguyen’s cookbook stands solidly on its authentic and well crafted recipes. All the traditional Vietnamese favorites are found within its pages and the flavors are bright and delicious. Some of my favorites include Nguyen’s family Pho recipe, Green Papaya Salad, and Grilled Pork Cutlets Marinated With Honey and Scallions.

Whether you are a seasoned home cook, well versed in Vietnamese cuisine or are just getting started, Secrets of the Red Lantern should be on your cookbook shelf. There are recipes here for every palate including vegetarian and gluten free. While some recipes have a lengthy ingredient list, all items can be found at your local Asian market and the preparations are easy to follow. Most of the recipes use low cost ingredients as well so the finished recipes are quite affordable.

Book Review: The Food & Cooking of Russia

My previous encounters with Russia cuisine in the United States have left me disappointed. That is why I was so surprised to find myself enjoying the food that was served throughout Moscow on my first trip to Russia earlier this year. I was especially enamored with Chicken Kiev and mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy and I went hunting on as soon as I returned home from my trip, hoping to find an authentic Russian cookbook to recreate those flavors in my own kitchen.

The Food & Cooking of Russia by Elena Makhonko has received nothing but positive reviews so I settled on it as my cookbook of choice and ordered it. It’s a lovely hardcover book with beautiful illustrations and opens with a great section on general information about Russia, festivals and Russian celebrations, and classic ingredients in Russian cuisine. The recipes are organized by course in an easy to follow layout.

I made the salted cucumbers from the chapter on appetizers and although I did not have vodka on hand to serve as an accompaniment, the cucumbers went over very well with my dinner guests. They were salty and delicious, bursting with dill flavor.

For dinner one evening I prepared Chicken Kiev with mushroom sauce (page 86-87) and served it alongside whipped potatoes. I thought it odd that the author recommended rice as the side dish for this entrée as when I was in Moscow it was always served with potatoes. The preparations were pretty easy (pound the chicken very thin, stuff with garlic butter, dredge in breadcrumbs, chill, and fry) and yet the finished presentation was nothing less than exquisite. Rich, delicious, and very filling, this will be on regular rotation in our home.

To accompany the chicken, I made the small blueberry pies (page 117) but that did not go so well. For starters, the recipe states in the header that it makes 10 pies but in the written directions it states that it makes 24. That made it very difficult when attempting to scale the recipe down for 4 guests. Also, I was expecting the pie dough to have the texture and flavor of traditional pie crust but it was much more along the lines of a dinner roll. Nothing was too tragic about the pies that couldn’t be solved by serving them a la mode, but it’s definitely not a recipe I’ll repeat.

With two A+ recipes and one C- to date, I hold out hope that the rest of the recipes will be winners. And I certainly think that this cookbook is hands above the rest of those available that focus on Russian cuisine. I’m going to try the Honey and Cardamom Drink next, along with Little Beef Pies, and the Chicken Noodle Soup.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Mama’s Postcard Collection

My paternal grandparents were French and they traveled throughout the world. As they did so, they casually collected postcards from every hotel or restaurant that offered them. These cards collected dust in Mama and Papa’s (as we called them) possession as they were moved from apartment to apartment and home to home but never used. I get a lot of pleasure now from pulling out these old cards and researching the locations depicted to see if they’re still around. Sadly, most of them of have been demolished or have undergone major renovations.

One of my favorite cards from the collection was a postcard from LaGuardia airport in the 1950s. The caption on the back wrote that soon LaGuardia might surpass 1 million passengers a year. In comparison, last year 23 million people flew out of the airport.

I’m working on my penpal postcards this week and so I’m browsing through the cards to select one for sending. I’ve just come across another great card in their collection: The Virginia House Restaurant, in Marion, VA. Here’s a picture of it, as shown on the postcard collection site (where you can buy the last known unused card for approx $5):

Virginia House Restaurant Marion

The caption on the back reads: On U.S. Highway #11 - 1/2 Mile from Marion, Virginia, 3 miles from Hungry Mother State Park. In the Heart of The Beautiful Mountain Empire of Southwest Virginia. Operated by Frances and Charles East. Phone St 3-4911, Marion, Virgina.

I’ve spent about twenty minutes researching this restaurant on the internet and it’s completely disappeared from the annals of history. No background, no demolition information. I’ve googled the family that owned it, the address, everything. Nada. One of life’s little mysteries I guess. It’s such a beautiful building, and I love the cars parked outside!

Can you hear me now?

I’m driving down a long and winding road in the back hills of Virginia. My GPS can’t identify my location, my cell phone has no coverage, and I’m really not concerned. I’ve got the top down on my convertible, the bluegrass music playing, and I feel full and happy.

Wait a minute, back up here. The bluegrass music?

The bluegrass music!

I have enjoyed the small snippets of bluegrass music I’ve been exposed to over the years. So I finally decided to fully immerse myself in the genre by attending a bluegrass festival. My friends in the know who keep up with the music scene told me that the Graves Mountain Festival of Music is the best bluegrass festival in our region. I put the word out on Facebook and Twitter and casually asked around among my friends to drum up support for a group to go together but no dice. I have friends who I can call on in an emergency, friends who will pray with me, friends who will drop everything and fly to London for dinner, but apparently no friends who are interested in “that twangy bluegrass mountain music”.

So I went by myself.

I drove up to Graves Mountain Lodge Friday afternoon and squared things away with regard to my check-in (I already had tickets for the festival and reservations for a room at the lodge) before heading up to the dining room for dinner. At Graves Mountain Lodge, three meals are included with each night’s stay. Dinner was fresh river trout, cornbread, potatoes and a lot of other delicious food. The food was phenomenal. I was feeling a bit shy so even though the meal was served family style and I was elbow to elbow with strangers I really didn’t talk to anyone. I just finished my meal and then walked down to the pavilion area where the musicians were performing. I had my fold-down chair like everyone else, and I settled into a row close enough to get a great view of the stage but far enough back that I had a shady refuge under a tree.

There were a few different bands performing Friday night and they were all pretty good. Everyone sang about family, about love, and about God. The last band to take the stage was IIIrd Tyme Out. These guys are headed up by Russell Moore, who is one of the most decorated Bluegrass artists in history. The words he sang, the melodies he led, they all brought me to tears.The group played plenty of traditional bluegrass but also introduced me to a cappella gospel and it’s so beautiful and compelling that I have trouble understanding how one can grow up in the south listening to this type of music and not be wholly invested in Christianity.

IIIrd Tyme Out Performs ‘Feed Me Jesus’–a cappella gospel

While they played, I looked around at the audience and listened in on some neighboring conversations. Most people were very different from me in the way they spoke, the clothes they wore, and the things they talked about. There’s a real Appalachian mountain culture and these people are it. Thick southern accents, gentle smiles, and the constant refrain of God, family, and country. Despite the differences in our day to day livelihoods, everyone I met was so friendly to me and made me feel welcome. A lot of these folks have large, extended families who live nearby and a sense of “place” that I envy. I suppose the other side of the coin here is that those of us who don’t have a tie to a specific community, those of us without a sense of “place” affixed to a set of geographic coordinates are more easily able to adapt, to move across the country in a heartbeat and start all over as needed to pursue new opportunities.

As the weekend wore on, I opened up more during meal times to fellowshipping with more of the festival goers and I learned that there are some other common strains of sentiment flowing through this crowd – an appreciation for manual labor and the trades, a general dislike of the federal government, and a real and visible compassionate love for those within the culture and for outsiders wanting to be a part of it. There is such a conviction among this culture that their way of life is best and that our country is THE best that it’s admittedly a bit off putting because that compassion and love is pulled back a bit if you’re not interested in being a part of their group and adopting their core outlook. This is not a group that’s ok with agreeing to disagree and letting everyone hold to their own truth while we all remain good friends. Not at all. Also, patriotism runs really deep here and it makes me a bit uncomfortable because it runs counter to my liberal college brainwashing: it’s always better to have an open mind, to embrace differences, to see that all of humanity is family and that nations are nothing more than artificial lines drawn in the sand to exclude others. I fit in as a Christian conservative this weekend and was welcomed with open arms, but when I think about many of my friends (liberal, gay, transsexual, socialist, hindu, foreigners who have no interest in embracing American values, etc) I can’t honestly say I can envision the welcome mat rolled out for them. So this dip into Appalachian mountain culture this weekend gave me a lot to contemplate.

Back to the music. Whereas the groups on Friday moved me with their voices and Christian sentiments, the best performers on Saturday brought me to my feet in awe and left me stunned by their instrument playing. Steep Canyon Rangers, in particular, boast a fiddle player who is classically trained and bluegrass oriented. His handwork on the fiddle left me (and most of the crowd) speechless. I’ve included the video below – take a look at his mastery of the fiddle.

Steep Canyon Rangers show off their musical range with Auden’s Train

Aside from the beautiful music, staying at Graves Mountain Lodge afforded me the chance to get to know a handful of new people, hike in the Virginia mountains, enjoy a leisurely swim, and chow down on some of the best southern food I’ve ever eaten – fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, fresh cherry pie, strawberry shortcake, marshmallow fluff salads, mashed potatoes with sawmill gravy, and more. It’s a great place to get away from it all and just relax.

I’ve already signed up for next year’s festival.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: The Liars’ Gospel

The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman is a “creative” retelling of life in Israel under Roman occupation and early on centers on Jesus. Alderman’s crafting of words is superb so it’s quite disappointing that she put her talent to work slandering a public figure in such an offensive manner.

In the novel we are exposed to the viewpoints of Mary, Barabbas, and Judas as imagined by Alderman. I can get behind historical fiction wherein we take a real place or course of events to set the scene and slide in imaginary characters to build a plot. Likewise I enjoy a twist on a known public figure that shows another side of them that is faithful to their overall historical presence but adds a new dimension of storytelling. But I really have a problem with a convenient retelling that absolutely butchers the essence of a character we’ve come to know through history. Jesus punching his father in the face and the other nonsense that goes on in The Liars’ Gospel is disgusting and the character sketch of Jesus as depicted by Alderman is very offensive to not only Christians but to the record of history. What’s next, a historical novel about Ghandi detailing his secret role as a fascist, working undercover for the state to stir up insurrection and justification for his friends in power to destroy the people? Perhaps a creative retelling of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King recast as a drunkard and adulterer whose main focus was becoming famous and having a movie made about himself? Or we could approach it from the other direction and spin a moving story of Hitler and how he was deeply misunderstood?

I’ve read other reviews in a similar vein (thus my voice ads to the chorus) and so I know what’s next: cue the godless hoards on Amazon to leave argumentative comments on this review and attack my coverage of the novel.

Book Review: Questions of Travel

I finished reading Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser this morning. Rarely have I been so eager to reach the end of a novel to get it over with. De Kretser exhausts over 500 pages attempting to make a profound statement about travel and I’d be lying if I said I understood what exactly she was trying to convey. It’s clear she also has something to say about the internet and the advance of technology but I can’t figure out that message either. To quote one of my favorite movie lines, “what we have here is a failure to communicate”.

Questions of Travel introduces us to Laura and to Ravi, two characters who inhabit the same novel but never cross paths until near the end of the novel and even then have no real impact on each other’s lives. Laura’s story is rambling, dull, and rather depressing as it recounts her aimless days doing this, that, and nothing in between bits of travel and sleeping with almost any hard luck case or loser that comes along. Ravi’s story is the stronger of the two as it chronicles his tale of profound loss, fear, and eventual second guessing over what has really happened to his family and whether he can ever return home.

It’s such a waste of potential, this novel. De Kretser has a way with words, a beautiful prose that puts you in the scene and yet this mind numbing, slow paced, going nowhere plot has sunk the novel. It could have been something great, with a lot more work from the editors.