Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Those Who Save Us

I'm freezing! Brrr. I feel bound and determined NOT to turn on the heat in September, however at the moment my bedroom is a brisk 62 degrees. We'll have to see how I feel when I arrive home from work at midnight.

My bookclub has had its fair share of duds this year. At our next meeting we'll be discussing Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us. Here was something I could finally sink my teeth into.

Those Who Save Us is the story of Trudy and Anna. Anna is Trudy's mother, a German immigrant who was never really accepted in the small town of Minnesota where she lived. Trudy is her daughter, a professor of German studies, who has lived her life wondering why her mother won't talk to her about her father and her past. Thanks to a photograph she found with her mother's things, Trudy believes she is the child of a Nazi officer.

Told in alternating story lines, we learn Anna's past and Trudy's present. I think I enjoyed Anna's storyline more, desperate as it was. Anna's story feels unexpected and it is no wonder that she has chosen to remain silent. Though free during WW2, she suffered and paid a price for survival. Trudy embarks on a video project with a colleague who is recording stories of Jewish survivors. Trudy in turn begins recording stories of Germans who lived through the war. The tales she hears vacillate from greatly disturbing to life affirming. The ending comes as a bit of a shock, we know that Trudy will eventually discover what her mother went through, and the end is positively gripping as things are revealed.

As I mentioned above, this story takes place in Minnesota. When I read a book set in a place where I live or have lived, I never fail to wonder if because I am familiar with the place, the details of place stand out so much to me. I cannot tell from Blum's biography if she has ever lived here, but I can tell you that she has the details spot-on. When she writes about the cold, and how it seems your lungs are going to shatter when you breath in, well, I know she knows how cold it really is here.

This was an absorbing read for me and one of the highlights of our bookclub in 2009. I can't wait to hear what everyone else thought.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Two Lauries

I was all set to participate in the blogishness yesterday but I went to the eye doctor yesterday and spent the afternoon blind. How did I forget that they were going to dilate my eyes and why does it seem it affected me more than ever? I went to the grocery store afterwards and almost had to ask someone to read the labels on the food for me. Thank goodness for tv.

This has been a busy week and I have only a short time now as I'm due at school for the 'picnic' when parents join their children for lunch and awful food is served. Ugh.

I'd just like to mention a few books I've read lately - it's been awhile since I've read them so I don't have a lot to say.

Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is an absolutely delightful food memoir. She's funny, she's sarcastic, she knows what she likes and she's not afraid to eat it. I don't even know that I so much plan to cook any of her recipes - the writing here is what appealed to me. Happily, there is a follow-up to Home Cooking,More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen; unhappily this is all we will ever have as Colwin passed away at a young age.

I also read Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak in a flash last weekend. Utterly compelling, this young adult novel is one I've heard of everywhere and for good reason. Anderson certainly has some insight into the minds of teenagers. For those unacquainted, Speak is the story of a young woman who has entered high school as an outcast, thanks to a phone call to the police she made at a party. No one knows why she really made that phone call, no one knows why she rarely speaks. I can completely see why this book has become assigned reading for teens. This book is rather bigger than itself, in that so many teens can relate to feelings of isolation and of being misunderstood that Anderson writes of so vividly. This is the sort of book I hope my daughter is reading when the age is right.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gifts of War

Set during World War I, Gifts of War: A Novel is the story of a British soldier named Hal, who is involved in the Christmas Truce of 1914. Hal meets a German soldier Wilhelm at that times who entrusts Hal with a photo of his English girlfriend Sam in the hopes that Hal can let her know he is alive. Hal is injured during the war and sets out to find Sam. Upon seeing Sam, Hal is so taken with her that he does not reveal his true purpose and instead sets out to become romantically involved with her. Hal discovers that Sam is the mother of Wilhelm's child which puts her in a precarious position both in the village and in her job.

A large portion of the book deals with Hal's career. Hal's service on the front lines and his extensive knowledge of German give him exciting employment opportunities with the war ministry in military intelligence.

While readable, I found Gifts of War to be an odd book. Set up as a story of passion, the relationship between Hal and Sam come across without passion, instead there is a lot of talking. The truth is, Hal 'fell in love' with Sam at first sight, based on her appearance. Obviously, at the time men were in short supply, Hal could have had any woman he wanted. Even considering the fact that Sam's boyfriend is the enemy, I still found Hal a morally corrupt person to have broken the pact he made with Wilhelm.

I found the portion of the story that dealt with Hal's military work to be the most fascination and engaging aspect of this book. I sensed that the author felt more assured to be writing on this topic than of the love affair. This makes sense, considering the description we have of author Mackenzie Ford:

Mackenzie Ford is the nom de plume of a well-known and respected historian who lives in London.

Gifts of War ends in an unsatisfying way. It made me wonder what was the motivation to write this book in the first place. The author writes about military intelligence in a fascinating way, but it seems he or she threw in the romance to attract a more varied audience. The premise is certainly interesting and includes a moral question but the ending of the novel does not reflect any moral resolution.

Many thanks to Doubleday for this review copy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Farmers' Market - September 20

I had company again this week at the market. While there, she ate a doughnut and an apple cider popsicle. On the way home she ate a tiny apple that was gifted to her. Lucky girl!

Funny, this doesn't look as heavy as it felt! Peppers, corn, wax beans, leeks, spinach, garlic, meats, and fresh apple cider (!!). Last night we feasted on flank steak, corn on the cob and spinach. I can never believe that you can start with so much spinach and wind up with less than a cup when you cook it.

In exciting news, my new cookbook arrived today. It looks divine and after the first quick browse, I might do something from it tonight. More on Tender later. I see the price has gone up. Nuts.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Eye Candy

I don't think I've done one of these posts for awhile! I think my book buying slowed down a bit this year which is good for my wallet anyway. I should warn you, these aren't the best photos ever taken.

I've been having a bit of a British book binge lately.

I keep ordering things from The Book Depository! I love to boost the British economy, you know. I think the free shipping on all orders makes it so easy to order one thing here, one thing there...I have 2 books on their way here right now.

Danielle actually talked me into the top book, The Forsyte Saga: The Man of Property,the first book in The Forsyte Saga. These new single book editions are so much more reader friendly than the huge tome. I actually found this UK edition at a US store. I also found the second title, The Book of Love at Border's and had to snatch it up after the good press from the UK book bloggers. The other titles are ones I've had my eye on for some time, except for the Emily Barr which is a new release that I'm already reading.

Here are some books that were given to me.

A friend in Chicago handed me Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich book when I told her how much I enjoyed The Master Butcher's Singing Club. She said she really liked this one.

The other two books are ARCs. I requested Alice I Have Been - this sounds amazing and I feel really lucky to have scored this one. The John Irving book came unsolicited - and it is huge. I've read one book by Irving and since it's here, I'll give this one a try.

This final stack contains other books I've bought.

Pass the Polenta: And Other Writings from the Kitchen fits into that food memoir category I'm so fond of. I'll be reading The Gargoyle soon for bookclub. The bottom two books I found at a used book store in Chicago. The Bretts was apparently a Masterpiece Theatre presentation in the 80s. The Second Sister by Leslie O'Grady is a book I'm quite curious about. It sounds like a blend of romance and suspense - has anyone read this author?

Finally, you'll see Boston 2010 there. My last copy of Frommer's Boston is from 1997 and I'm thrilled to be returning there next month. Any suggestions?

Thursday, September 17, 2009


It's not very often take I take note of a book, pick it up at the bookstore, and read it a week later. I generally like to hem and haw a bit but occasionally, the stars align and I actually buy the right book at the right moment and just get on with it.

That book was Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, first time novelist.

Mudbound takes place in Mississippi just after WW2. The McAllens, a white family, have just bought a farm out in the country where the black Jackson family live as sharecroppers. The Jackson's eldest son Ronsel has just arrived from serving his country in Europe where he experienced for the first time in his life what it was to be just a man, not a black man. It's hard to imagine what it would be like to come home after that and adjust to life as a second class citizen - we have that chance here. Ronsel begins what seems to everyone else like an unlikely relationship with Jamie McAllen, brother of farm-owner Henry. These men understand one another like no one else around can as they've both just returned from war.

Because Jordan has chosen to give us first person accounts from a variety of characters, we know that Henry's wife Laura is less than thrilled with her new life in the country. We know how Ronsel's parents feel about the McAllens and their life on the farm. What is striking about the characters in Mudbound is that Jordan has not made them any better than they are. The McAllens are just as racist as you'd expect a family at this time period to be. They've been brought up to believe that black people are..different. The elder Jackson's have learned how to live in this world, showing subservience when it eases the struggle.

As I came to expect, a great drama unfolded in the latter part of Mudbound. What came to be was so shocking and beyond reality that as I read the words my eyes shut, I said out loud 'Oh my God' and closed the book.

Mudbound is not a perfect book, but it is absolutely spellbinding. It's the sort of book you begin to read and suddenly you've read 100 pages and the next thing you know you've finished. It's the sort of book that creates an atmosphere from which it's difficult to surface. It's astonishing really, to read something like this from a first time novelist. Hillary Jordan is an author to watch.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Purple Cauliflower

It stays purple when you cook it. Just in case you were wondering.

The End.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Farmers' Market - September 12

You'll never GUESS who accompanied me to the market yesterday!!

Yes, it was The Girl. She picked out that giant purple blob which is cauliflower -it's gorgeous actually, and there was also orange cauliflower and a romanesco one which was snapped up under my nose. She also chose brussels sprouts (!!), banana peppers (what do I do with those??), honey sticks, and the chocolate sauce in the jar in the front. She goes for all the expensive stuff. She also wanted jams, honey, flowers, and apple cider in a special kids cup.

I also picked up beans, pattypan squash, corn, red peppers, heirloom tomatoes, eggs and a little meat.

So, you know how I cannot resist a cookbook about vegetables and seasonal cooking? Yeah. So I was just picking up a few things from Whole Foods when I spotted this:

I brought Tastes from Valley to Bluff: The Featherstone Farm Cookbook home with me and just from a quick browse I can tell you it looks fabulous. What a bonus that all the foods within can be grown right here in Minnesota! And, 2/3 of the book is vegetarian. Love it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

East of the Sun

I'm not sure where I first heard of Julia Gregson's East of the Sun: A Novel, but it was well before it was published in the states. It was this review by Harriet Devine that made me decide for once and for all that I needed to give this book a try. I was lucky enough to mooch a copy with that gorgeous cover you see above. The US edition is nice looking, but I think this aquamarine cover is just sublime.

East of the Sun takes place in 1928 and is the story of three women. Viva is an orphaned young woman trying to get her fare paid to India where her parents died and where she is searching for a piece of her past. Viva becomes the chaperone for Rose and Victoria (Tor). Rose is traveling to India to marry a military man whom she has only known a short time. She is sad to leave her family and nervous about her new life. In contrast, Tor, Rose's bridesmaid, is thrilled to finally have some freedom and cannot wait to get out from under her mother's watch and experience life. Also traveling under Viva's care is Guy, a troubled teen who has been educated in England (until he was expelled) while his parents lived in India. Guy becomes rather a troublesome influence in Viva's life; he is somewhat mentally disturbed.

The first part of the book is about the actual trip to India. Later on we follow Viva as she tries to eek out a living, Rose, as she becomes accustomed to married life, and Tor as she seeks romance, for she does not want to be sent home, unmarried and ashamed. I think Viva was my favorite character to read about. Her struggles were the most interesting as well as her life living and working amongst the native people of India. I found Rose's story fascinating as well, the idea that a beautiful young woman would leave her family, possibly forever, to marry a man she barely knows. I'm reading another book right now, a nonfiction book about the lack of men to marry after WW1. Perhaps that is why Rose took a risk.

I found East of the Sun to be the perfect sort of comfort reading for me. I read it on vacation and it was the perfect book to fall into and escape with at the end of the day. I don't know that it would survive harsh literary criticism, but I have to say I sort of loved it. Loved the girls and their relationships, loved the romance, loved the setting in India where the Indian people are beginning to chafe under British rule.

It was a compelling read for me, so much so, that I have Gregson's other published novel, The Water Horse, winging its way to me from England as I write.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Year of the Flood

Last week I made an attempt to tell a friend what Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood: A Novel is about. She would probably tell you I wasn't very successful. I can hardly think of another book that I've read in its entirety that is so difficult to describe. But I will try, and at the very least hope to give my thoughts on this novel.

We know from the outset the Apocalypse has come for the human race. We also know that two women have survived, Ren and Toby. Ren has survived because she is locked inside a bizarre sex club where she worked. Toby has survived in a fancy spa, where the treatments are edible and she has horded food. Ren and Toby knew each other once, when they lived with the God's Gardener's, a green-burlap wearing-vegetarian group of people who try to preserve plant life, keep bees, and whose leader has predicted what is now happening. The Flood is a waterless one, and the story goes back and forth, telling the stories of Ren and Toby before and after the flood.

The period after the Flood overlaps with what Atwood fans know happened in Oryx and Crake. Because of this, we readers sometimes know more than Ren and Toby. In other instances the characters in this book clear up what we didn't understand about what was happening in O&C. Where O&C is the story inside the corporations, this is the story of what happened to everyone on the outside and what life had been like there. I loved seeing the characters from O&C in another light - they do appear here - in fact, the number of coincidences here where characters happened to know each other almost became silly.

I think a big question is: Do you need to have read Oryx and Crake to read this book? I'm going to say that if you're interested in this book, it would be to your benefit to read O&C first. Not only does the back story help, but enough is given away in The Year of the Flood that it would ruin O&C quite a bit.

My friend asked me if I enjoyed this book. I cannot really say that this is a book that you will 'like' or 'enjoy'. It is devastating and horrible, yet at the same time often hopeful. It is bizarre and even funny, in that disturbing way that Atwood is. It was a treat to immerse myself in this world that I already knew about, and learn more about Atwood's vision. It's just very Atwood - can I say Atwoodian - is that a word yet? It's totally her, so if you think she's fabulous, then this is for you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Back in the Saddle Again....(I think)

Today was the big day - the first day of second grade. There were some nerves on the walk to school, but as soon as the girl saw her best friend, I literally felt the pull of her body towards her friend as they embraced. They hadn't seen each other for 3 weeks after spending the summer together at day camp so there were big smiles all around. I can't wait to hear about her day.

So, I've been back home for a few days and when I wasn't at work I was making tomato sauce and doing laundry. I did go to the farmers' market on Sunday, but unfortunately there is no photo as I didn't have a camera here. I spent 8 hours on Sunday doing this with tomatoes. I don't really have words for how tired I was afterwords. I don't know how those pioneer women did it. This year I prepared 30 meals worth of sauce, unbelievable that I made dinner for one month, in one day.

Chicago was fun as always and it's great to enjoy old favorites as well as new pleasures. Highlights of our trip included the new German U Boat exhibit at the Science and Industry Museum - it's inside now - and yours truly got to enjoy the Harry Potter exhibit by myself there. There are many costumes on display and props from the movies. I even got to throw a bludger! The detail of the props is AMAZING and I would have loved to have brought home a replica of the Marauder's Map if only it hadn't cost $45. (!!!!!! for a piece of paper !!!!!!)

One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting the Old Town Oil Shop. It's my idea of heaven - casks upon casks of oils and vinegar to try and bring home.

You can taste as much as you want, then when you decide what you'd like, your oil or vinegar is poured into a lovely bottle from these silver casks. That way you know exactly what you're getting. I brought home some olive oil and an amazing black current balsamic vinegar.

There's so much more. I've been reading so hopefully I'll get to reviewing books in the next day or so. There are also new books to share. But for now, I'm going to celebrate the first day of school by treating myself to a movie - Julie and Julia. Originally, I had quietly boycotted this film. While I loved Julia's book, I actively disliked the few chapters I read of Julie's. In addition, from what I've read and heard, Julia was not a fan of Julie - she had no interest in her project. So....is it a bit insulting to Julia that the film we now have of her life includes Julie? I'm not sure. But, now the reviews are so good, I've decided to go anyway. C'est la vie.

Photo from Seasoned Solutions Culinary Tours.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Clean Food

Terry Walters believes that in order to nourish our bodies we should eat food as close to the natural source as possible. Her new cookbook, Clean Food: A Seasonal Guide to Eating Close to the Source with More Than 200 Recipes for a Healthy and Sustainable You,is being released today and illustrates her philosophy with delicious sounding recipes.

For the last couple of years I've personally decreased the amount of meat in my family's diet. At first I found it to be a challenge, now it feels ordinary. When I was offered Clean Food for review, I thought it sounded like a good fit for me. While we do eat plenty of vegetarian meals, it would be nice to sometimes eat even lower on the food chain, that is to say vegan, and I thought I could use some ideas.

I've only had a chance to try one recipe from Clean Food so far, that for Fruity Balsamic Vinaigrette and it is a winner. This vinaigrette is lighter than the usual salad dressing I prepare, the juices contained in it balance out the olive oil to create a wonderful dressing we all enjoyed. Other recipes that I haven't made yet but have marked to try include: Sesame Brussels Sprout Saute (you know how I love my brussels!), Crispy Chickpea Fritters, Millet Black Bean Patties with Corn, Black Bean Patties with Pineapple Guacamole (!!), Spiced Sweet Potato Fries, Sweet Dumpling Squash with Orange Scented Quinoa Stuffing, and Wild Rice Pilaf. I could go on.

While many of the recipes use ingredients that are common in my kitchen, there are ingredients that are new to me as well such as sea vegetables, various condiments (that frankly, I've seen at the store and always wondered about), and different types of flours, grains, and beans. Walters often uses kombu, a sea vegetable when cooking grains or beans. She writes that it adds minerals and tenderizes legumes. I'd heard about kombu before, but have finally been inspired to buy some and will try it the next time I cook a pot of beans.

I noticed early on that the recipes didn't contain wheat -I wondered why- then Walters mentioned that one her children had sensitivities to wheat, corn, soy, and dairy. It all made sense to me then, and I realized what a great resource this book could be for families with similar food allergies. There are loads of yummy sounding desserts in the book that are dairy-free, gluten-free, you name it. These sorts of recipes are a God-send for families that struggle with what to prepare for allergic children.

If you're interested in Clean Food, I suggest checking out Terry's website. There is more information about Terry's philosophy about food and cooking as well as fun videos of her cooking and shopping.

Many thanks to Megan with Sterling Publishing for sending me Clean Food for review.