Sunday, August 30, 2009

We're Off to See the Wizard...

Well, okay, not the wizard. Can you guess?

We're headed off for next few days by car, then I'll be flying back since I have to work THE ENTIRE HOLIDAY WEEKEND starting Friday and except for Sunday when I may try to make my famous tomato sauce. And do all my family's laundry for the past week.

Then school starts and then I will be back to regular posting. BUT! I am scheduling a post of an about-to-be-released-book while I'm gone so stop by and check that out.

See you!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Crocodile Bird

Ruth Rendell's novel The Crocodile Bird is the story of Liza, a young woman with a rather unusual upbringing. She has grown up sheltered from the outside world, brought up in the gatekeeper's house of an estate in the English countryside. Liza has only left the property a few times in her life, so has only come into contact with a few adults besides her mother Eve who has dictated her upbringing. Liza has never even known another child.

The Crocodile Bird opens with the knowledge that Eve is going to be prosecuted for a crime in the coming hours. In an attempt to protect Liza, Eva hatches a plan for Liza to get away, but Liza does not follow her instructions. What follows is the story of Liza's life after Eve's incarceration, as well as Liza telling the story of her past and why Eve kept her in seclusion. Liza's story is bone chilling; after all, Eve was arrested after the police came around looking for a missing man. For Liza, Eve's behavior didn't seem out of the ordinary - for her audience, well, it is shocking.

The Crocodile Bird is one of Ruth Rendell's stand-alone mysteries, and I felt it was very similar to her books under the name Barbara Vine - if you like her writing, I think you'd like this book. Rendell's books often seem so timeless. This one was written in 1993, if it hadn't been for descriptions of cars and televisions and other items, it could have taken place at anytime in the past 50 years or so.

Like the other Vine/Rendell books I have read, The Crocodile Bird is perfectly paced, and perfectly creepy. What made The Crocodile Bird stand out was its ending. Based on the blurb on the back of the book, it seemed clear what direction the story would take. And then - surprise. Well done Ruth Rendell.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sacred Hearts

Upon beginning Sacred Hearts: A Novel, I didn't imagine that I'd find myself completely wrapped up in this story about an Italian convent in the 1500s, but I absolutely was.

Sacred Hearts focuses on a period of time during which dowries were so high that families were perhaps only able to afford to marry off one daughter, and the other or others would be placed in a convent. Serafina is one of these young women, who has been placed into the convent of Santa Caterina against her will. She has arrived at the convent after an unapproved love affair and her story is full of all the passion of youth and young love. Her anger and grief are overwhelming when she finds herself suddenly living in what is essentially, a prison. One of the sisters, Suora Zuana, is touched by Serafina and attempts to make her more comfortable as she adapts to convent life. Zuana is a fascinating character and much of the story is told from her perspective. Thanks to her father, Zuana is knowledgeable about diseases and cures and her work at the convent is as the dispensary mistress, sort of a combination of physician, nurse, and pharmacist.

Sarah Dunant has created an amazing world within the pages of Sacred Hearts. As a reader, I felt so powerfully the sense of isolation these women must have felt, living in the middle of a city but unable to see outside the walls of the convent. Just as in the world of a convent, there are no men that even speak in this book besides a few words from the bishop. Because of all this, I felt almost as a voyeur, being able to see inside the world of these nuns. For some the convent seems a prison, at least at first. For others, the convent serves as a refuge, the only place to go once they are released from an unhappy life. For a few, they came to the convent because they were called.

I enjoyed this book very much, and then I heard a story that made me appreciate it even more. There is a woman that I work with that I often discuss books with. I was telling her about this book and when I finished she told me that it sounded like her mother's life who grew up in the 1950s. It was tradition in her Catholic family that one child would be 'given' to the church and she was chosen by her mother perhaps because she was favored by her father. She stayed with the convent for a number of years, until she suffered an nervous breakdown because she was so unhappy. When she was finally able to leave the convent she was treated so terribly in her small town for the 'shameful' thing she had done she had to move away. Her life did have some happiness, but ultimately ended in tragedy, her daughter suspects from the guilt she felt from leaving the convent.

All this to say, that throughout history, oftentimes women's lives were not their own to live, to make choices about, to enjoy.

Many thanks to Librarything's Early Reviewer program for this review copy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pre-Ordered. Done.

They had me at Nigel Slater.

And then I watched a video in which Nigel states that he wrote 600 pages about vegetables. Uh-huh.

It had to be mine. The best price can be found here.

I'm counting down the days until Tender: Volume 1: A Cook and his Vegetable Patch arrives. That means there is going to be a Volume 2; it is about fruit.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Farmers' Market - August 23

Why yes, yes I am planning on doing some cooking this week! New additions today include red peppers, golden beets, and a melon. I haven't had great luck with the melons at the market - they've tended to be mushy in the past - but I'm trying again.

I didn't make it to the market last week, but 3 friends gifted me with produce during the week. Plum-sized tomatoes (used for salsa), large heirloom tomatoes (used in tomato/mozzarella/basil salad -yum!), and corn and squash from the CSA box of a friend of a friend. That friend said I was the only person she could think of who would get excited about free vegetables. She was right, I did. My in-laws were pretty impressed when we received two deliveries on the same evening.

Are there any gardeners out there that can advise me about whatever this zucchini plant fungus/rot thing is? There were white spots on the leaves which then became white powder all over the leaves. My plants are done for, and I think they had this last year. Should I not plant again this coming year, or am I supposed to treat the soil in some way? Enquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where in the world is.....Tara?

Here I am!

It's been a strange week here at Chez Books and Cooks. After a long weekend of working (me), the girl traveled off to visit her grandparents for most of the week. It's been very quiet around here! Every evening, we're not sure what to do with ourselves.

We celebrated our 9th anniversary yesterday, so took a little mini-trip on Monday to one of those lovely old river towns, Stillwater, MN. I hadn't been there for a few years so was eagerly anticipating browsing in the many used book stores I remembered and hoping to find a few more green Viragos for my collection. Alas, things have changed. There are only two bookstores there now; one that sells new books and the other that sells 'rare' books, that is to say, expensive. There was an extremely small literature section at the rare bookshop which surprised us. My husband made the astute point, that if he wanted to read, say a history book (there were a lot of those), he would read a current one with updated information rather than one that is 60-80 years old.

In any case, we had a lovely time, and spent the evening at a beautiful bed and breakfast after dinner and drinks overlooking the river. Other than that, my schedule has been very off, full of dinners out and cleaning in expectation of my in-laws coming to stay this weekend. This involved a thorough cleaning of the girl's room and much trash removal of various do-dads.

Incidentally, she will be arriving home soon! I cannot wait to put my arms around her. I can tell it's going to be trouble when she goes away from home based on the meal I'm planning for tonight after only 4 days away...

flank steak
chips with homemade salsa and guacamole
lemon cake

All her favorites.

Something sort of bookish, is that I went to see The Time Traveler's Wife yesterday. Despite the lackluster reviews, I had hopes that this would be a satisfying movie and it just sort of...wasn't. I cannot remember details of the book, but I do remember how incredibly moved I was by the story. The dialogue in the move seemed stilted to me. It wasn't until later in the film that I felt connected to it, and in fact cried from the part when they're trying to get pregnant until the end. I cried during the book too; it all just broke my heart. I'm not sorry I watched the film since I would have always been curious, it's just that this book perhaps doesn't translate well to film.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Lost Garden

I've been a fan of Irish author Mary Stanley for some time so when I picked up her book The Lost Garden recently I felt that I was going to reading a sure thing, a completely satisfying novel. I'm sorry to say that I was a bit disappointed in this book.

The Lost Garden is the story of Esme, a woman who has moved to Paris for a year to be closer to her lover. She meets an acquaintance of his named Jacob who happens to be a psychiatrist, and because she is lonely and bored she begins telling him the story of her life, a lot of which has to do with her unluckiness in love. Esme then moves on and begins a relationship with another man, but continues to think about the conversations she had with Jacob and the fact that she hadn't told him everything. Slowly, we meet Esme's three daughters as the pursue their interests around the world and events ultimately bring all four women back to their home in London.

It's obvious early on that Esme has something in her past that she is hiding and it's not until the last third of the book that we find out what that is. Esme confronts her past, a 'twist' is revealed, and finally another 'twist' that only the reader knows about.

I've enjoyed Stanley's writing so much in the past, and I just didn't find that this book had the same texture, pacing, and texture as her other novels. When I read my description of this book, it doesn't even sound very interesting to me! I just figured it would be good based on the writer.

If you want to try this author, I suggest starting with another of her books, such as Retreat, Missing or Revenge.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Addicted to Harry Potter

Did I mention that when I finished Harry Potter 6, I immediately began book 7? And did I mention that after I finished that I read book 1 and am now reading book 2? Yeah, it's crazy! I don't know what it is about Harry that keeps me coming back for me, but I'm enjoying it for the time being.

I don't particularly want to discuss the plot of book 7, except to say that again, it took me awhile to find a rhythm with this book. The fact that Harry and friends don't go back to school really throws me off, and it seems like they're just running around for the first 2/3 of the book.

What I was thinking about as I read book 7, and what I want to talk about, is what are they going to do with the movie! I've read that book 7 will be split into two films, and I wanted to figure out what I thought would be the breaking point. First, I thought it might be when Ron returns to Harry and Hermione and they find the sword. Reading on, I then thought it might be after they visit Mr Lovegood and learn about the Deathly Hallows. This would be more of a dramatic ending, as the trio (HRH) realize it's not just horcruxes they need and they're setting off with a new goal. What do you think? Do you agree with either of these as a stopping point or do you have another idea?

My other thoughts about book 7 have to do with the fact that when HRH go off on adventures they're always using polyjuice potion or the invisibility cloak. Obviously that's not going to film very well with the main characters never themselves so I'm guessing there will be some changes made.

As I said, I finished book 7 and went straight back to book 1. My main purpose was to experience how Rowling crafted these books from the beginning and seeing what hints are dropped about the future earlier on. Book 1 is just a pure joy, it's truly a kids fantasy book and somehow the dark stuff just doesn't come across as scary as it does later on. It's such fun to read about the wizarding world and all the things we take for granted later on. Harry is also sort of annoying in the earlier books. He is always jumping into situations or places where he's not supposed to be. It's funny now reading the reviewer comments on book 2 about book 1. It's obvious no one knew what a huge global phenomenon this would all be.


My other current obsession is Woodstock. Not sure why, expect for seeing the trailer for the new Woodstock film coming out. I'm fascinated by the whole thing, the music, but more so, the crowds and what that experience would have been like. I've been watching performances on youtube of Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez and the like. It's interesting stuff and hard to believe it all happened 40 years ago.

We have lots going on in the coming weeks, so I'm thinking posting/commenting will be sporadic. Just a heads up.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Farmers' Market - August 9

I really cannot believe it is August 9. Nuts. Interesting purchases today include the really nice looking eggplant and bok choy. I have a recipe for a raw bok choy salad with an Asian dressing - sound good? I also bought some heirloom tomatoes. I think I bought some brandywine, Cherokee purple, something with valentine in the name...and something else. They all looked like they were grown with love.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Talking about Oryx and Crake

My book club met last week to discuss Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. We had a good turnout and a good discussion. I was pleased to discover that most members enjoyed this book a lot - truthfully I was a bit surprised. The members that weren't crazy about it coincidentally also didn't care for The Time Traveler's Wife - they just don't really like books about alternate reality.

Oryx and Crake is a difficult book to describe. When people have asked me, I usually say something along the lines of "it's about an apocalyptic future, sort of an end of world scenario and how it became that way. There are bio-engineered animals...stuff like that." So, that tells you a lot, huh. Not really. Oryx and Crake is a book best discovered for yourself. It opens with a man called Snowman. He used to have a friend named Crake and loved an elusive woman known as Oryx. But Snowman is now alone as least as far as the human race goes and as far as he knows. The book goes on to detail Snowman's formative years and what life was like living in a futuristic compound with his scientist father. How did the world become this way and why is Snowman all alone? It is all there to be discovered.

This was my second reading of Oryx and Crake, and I think I got more out of the book this time around. Obviously, knowing the outcome,I wasn't so mystified by everything going on in the beginning of the book and I was able to enjoy the ride more. While this isn't my favorite Atwood, I still enjoyed this book very much. As always, I am fascinated by the workings of Margaret Atwood's mind. Her creativity and the way she expresses how she sees the world through her writing are second to none.

The timing of reading O&C turned out to be fortuitous. I now realize that Atwood's forthcoming book The Year of the Flood: A Novel takes place during the same or a similar period as O&C; I think this re-reading will help me to understand and appreciate it that much more.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Out Of Order

We have been having computer/modem/router problems around here and I've been without service all week. What a good thing that our neighbor does IT and was able to help diagnose the problem. It sounds like some part of our system might have been hit by lightening. Crazy!

Funny, when there's no computer to use I'm able to get a lot more reading done. Somehow I didn't get much more housework done. Hmmm.

I hardly know where to begin with my 300 emails, huge backlog on bloglines and the numerous books I've read. So, here, I think I'll start with something fun.

Sophie Kinsella. Do you enjoy her books? For whatever reason, I'm drawn to them, and I was happy to score a fresh and never-read copy from the library of her newest book, Twenties Girl: A Novel. Kinsella is of course known for her Shopaholic series, but this is a stand-alone book.

In Twenties Girl, we meet Lara, a twenty-something young women whose luck has seemed to have run out. She's had problems at work, a break-up with her boyfriend and now she has to attend the funeral of her great-aunt Sadie who she never knew.

But. Twenty-something Sadie in ghost form appears to Lara at the funeral and she begs Lara to stop the funeral because she cannot rest until a very special necklace is returned to her. Let's just say Sadie is extremely persistent and Lara agrees to help her. Thus begins the antics that take place in this novel, from cute and funny, to cringingly embarrassing (and unlikely) as well as quite moving. We discover how having a ghost can actually be quite helpful as they can go places and see things others cannot. Just as you'd expect there's romance involved here, and just as you'd expect with a Kinsella book, there are happy endings all around.

Reading a new Sophie Kinsella book is like eating your favorite candy - wonderful in small doses. I mean, I wouldn't want to read books like this all the time, but once in a while they're just the perfect escape. It's a quick, fun, light, escapist read. I want to give kudos to Kinsella for her writing ability. I think writing a book like this is harder than it looks, keeping the balance between fun and ridiculous, and weaving that invisible thread throughout the book that keeps the reader curious and turning pages. All in all, a delight.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Farmers' Market - August 2

Ahhh. Veggies.

Here are the goods from today. I think I'm going to cook that flank steak tonight with corn and the snap peas (not sure why there are still snap peas, but these looked okay), and tomorrow I will make potato and squash gratin with green beans on the side. Have you seen yellow shallots? I'm used to the red ones but thought I'd try these. I did see some tomatoes today, peppers, and eggplant. The weather has been cool, cool, cool. I hope I can make my tomato sauce this year -this is my summer wish. Enjoy the day!